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Updated: 01/11/2012 07:30:25AM

Swiftmud will lose 36 percent of funding

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Property owners in Polk County will see their property tax bills drop about $16 next year due to $210 million sliced from the water management districts in the state.

In return for those cuts the Southwest Florida Water Management, which contains most of Polk County, there will be fewer water resource projects, less money for local governments for projects they may be working on, and the district will no longer be able to buy conservation lands to protect.

Last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that cut the budgets for not only Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, but also for South Florida, St. John’s, Suwanee River and Northwest Florida water management districts.

For Swiftmud, the cut will amount to 36 percent of its budget.

Robyn Felix, media relations manager for Swiftmud, said that will mean the budget will drop from $280 million to $161 million. That new budget will take effect on Oct. 1. The cuts could also mean a loss of jobs in the agency but whether that will happen is not known.

Scott acknowledged the likely job losses, but said they were a means to stirring private-sector growth.

“Most people believe government is larger than it should be,” he said.

Specifically what these cuts mean to the average person is in the Cooperative Funding Program. In this program, each town can apply for money from the water management district for programs to help them save money on a toilet rebate program or on a flood protection project or to fix stormwater runoff into a lake, Felix said.

“Towns will still be able to apply for money but there won’t be as much money to go around,” Felix said.

She also said that Swiftmud is changing its focus from trying to save land in conservation buys. There is not any land in Polk County it will stop trying to buy, but in Pasco County, for instance, the agency will no longer try to buy land near the Starkey Preserve. The price tag was about $8 million.

“That’s also been the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency; purchasing for conservation is no longer part of our core mission,” she said.

Scott signed the bill as he stood before a large banner proclaiming “Promises Made, Promises Kept” and said the law would help fulfill his campaign mantras of stimulating the economy and job growth.

“The most important step we can take to create jobs in our state is to lower taxes,” he said.

The new law requires the Legislature to annually review the budget and tax rate for each of the state’s five water management districts and sets caps on the rate. Scott said, in effect, “the public will have a lot better handle on how their money is spent” and it holds the districts accountable.

Kirk Fordham, head of the Everglades Foundation, said the savings to homeowners would be insignificant and said Scott’s appearance was especially insulting given a severe drought that has hit the state.

“Since the water management district’s mission is to protect our natural resources and water supply, I’m not certain that gutting the agency in the midst of a massive water crisis is either smart politics or very good policy,” he said.

But with the reality of less money this will give the agencies a reason to focus on cutting.

“We’ve been looking for ways to be efficient, we just have to prioritize what we can do and fund,” Felix said.

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