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Nancy Smith

Eric Buermann: Billions Wasted and He Dares to Whine?

February 13, 2011 - 6:00pm

For the first time in years, the South Florida Water Management District has a chance to get a grip on reality, and what does it do? Whine like a spoiled brat.

Instead of cheering Gov. Rick Scott's involvement in trying to turn around the Districts failed management strategies especially knowing they need help to fight strangulating federal regulations board members last week resorted to attempts of scaring the pants off the 16 counties they serve and every Floridian seeking to save the Everglades.

Some of the most outlandish oh-my-the-sky-is-falling silliness came from the board chairman, Eric Buermann. If the governor curtails the water management districts ability to tax property owners by 25 percent as he has proposed to do that isnt a break for taxpayers, says Buermann.

Why not?

Because, apparently, the $180 million it will cost the District over the next two years could create the need for unthinkable sacrifice. The chairman sat by quietly at last week's board meeting -- offered not one comforting word -- while Vice Chairman Jerry Montgomery frightened the wits out of District employees with talk of layoffs.

Buermanns hand-wringing despair ended with the biggest absurdity of all: We are getting down to the point where we might just as well close the agency.

Close the agency? Wholesale layoffs? This man, the ultimate Zero, is leaving the District just in time.

The governor is not the bad guy in this bureaucratic version of a B-grade spaghetti western. When he rode into town, he didnt rob the bank and shoot up the town, he gave the townsfolk a tax break.

When youve got a budget of $1.1 billion and more than 1,930 employees as the District has, you dont get to blame the governor.

When youre responsible for the largest budget of the states five water management agencies with more than $650 million allocated to Everglades restoration you dont get to say that Everglades restoration is in danger because of the governor. At least, not this governor.

Buermann has my friends in Martin County all tied up in knots, and I can understand why. Theyre fed up to the teeth at having helped Martin pour $43 million into Everglades restoration over the last decade but seeing nothing come of it. In the absence of the promised, completed reservoir, landowners north of Lake Okeechobee are being paid to store water, which is still getting dirtier, which is reaching the lake, which is pumped out into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and their estuaries.

These Martin folks certainly fiscal conservatives and most of them supporters of Scotts policies want the governor and the Legislature not to cut the Districts property tax ability. Thats because they believe Buermann. They fear they will never see significant restoration for their ailing St. Lucie estuary. Theyre even urging a letter-writing campaign to the governor and their legislative delegation.

Said Tom Kenny, a lifelong Martin County resident, former Martin County commissioner and member of the Water Resources Advisory Commission, "Everglades, northern and southern, restoration is critical to the health of our rivers and our economy.If District funding is cut they will have no choice but to withdraw as the local partner to restoration efforts."

Kenny is the smartest man I know on Treasure Coast water issues. I'm taking a chance here saying I think he's overstating his case.

Heres why I disagree, why I think Scott has shown up at just the right time with the right idea.

In the first place, theres enough money and then some in the budget for the Districts core mission flood protection and water supply.

The District has failed. Completely and utterly. It may not be entirely their fault, but it is what it is.

A decade after the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was signed, we have no substantial restoration from it. Costs are rising. The broad support CERP once enjoyed has fractured. And the state-federal partnership is not working.

Thats why it rings about as hollow as a heartbreak to hear District board members complain that a property tax cut would drive water managers to postpone restoration projects. How absurd.

The District has thrown away hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars, especially since 2007.

They certainly didnt mean to, said Barbara Miedema, vice president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative and member of Scotts transition team for water. But theyve participated in mission creep and they havent always made the wisest of choices.

What the governor is looking for is what she calls a timeout.

The District is not getting the things done it needs to, she said. We want to use these two years to take a step back, take an inventory of all the projects weve started and stopped and all the ways we could be working more effectively and more cost-efficiently.

We have to ask ourselves, What do we need to be doing? Miedema said.

Gov. Charlie Crists deal with U.S. Sugar Corp. did more than anything to rearrange the Districts priorities and, frankly, waste money. Building concrete projects was replaced with buying land as the Districts new priority. In fact, right now the District is sitting on a land inventory of more than 100,000 acres, most of it unused.

Taxpayers had already shelled out almost $300 million of the A-1 reservoirs $800 million price tag when Crist and the District shut down construction in 2008. Had the shut-down never happened, the reservoir would have been completed in 2010 and right now it would have been storing 62 billion gallons of water -- the equivalent of more than 5 million residential swimming pools water that instead continues to be flushed east and west to the estuaries.

Miedema puts the Districts problems in a more kindly light than I do. I think the District is the true Florida Taj Mahal. I think its a monolithic, gold-plated bureaucracy dripping in strange priorities and questionable practices. Staff and board members alike travel first-class through the list of votes they recommend and cast. They think of spending millions the way most of us would spend hundreds. Some examples:

They bought something called a SAP program razzle-dazzle, top-of-the-line accounting software something so expensive its generally only used by big private companies to track consumer goods. In fact, only two public agencies in the country use it. Not only did it cost $81 million when the District bought it in 2007, it costs $10 million a year to maintain it.

Year after fiscal year the Districts goal has been to spend or tie up 90 percent of their budget in the first quarter of the year. What business does that? Could you run your family's budget that way?

Their employee benefits packages are particularly lucrative at the top. I asked the District on Thursday for the value of Executive Director Carol Wehles compensation, but did not receive an answer by the time of publication. Her salary alone is more than $200,000, but beyond that what sends her package into orbit are the benefits the DROP program participation, the health care and pension and other lifetime-security tag-ons. Upper management employees with Wehles valuable goodies package number in the teens.

Meanwhile, out in the field, more waste. After billions -- literally, billions -- have been spent over the years on exercises like ripping out evil-for-the-Everglades cattails, the District is spending $200,000 to repopulate said cattails in water treatment areas, where they are apparently now good for the environment.

Gabe Margasak, media relations representative for SFWMD, had little to say beyond the pat press statement that appeared in other news reports. "The District has not yet started its budget development process for fiscal year 12, which begins in October," Margasak wrote. "The agency will be working closely with DEP and the governors office in the months ahead to determine the most effective way to meet the governors objectives."

Miedema points out that the board needs Scotts involvement because the District and the federal government with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Migratory Bird Act, wetlands mitigation rules and other considerations coming from Washington -- often work at cross-purposes. The result is delay, expense, frustration and lack of results. Scott, she believes, can provide the connection to help fix the broken link.

So can our congressional delegation, she says, which increasingly presses colleagues in Washington to kill the EPAs numeric nutrient criteria for Florida waters.

The overreaching federal government is one of our biggest problems, she maintains. They need to leave us alone, go home, let us police specific limits on the amounts of nutrients allowed in state waters. We understand the need for clean water in a fragile environment like ours, just as well as they do.

Hopefully, Floridians and especially the Legislature will take a broader, deeper look at the District, considering that these people, responsible for so much waste for so many years, these people elected by no one, have no business crying over a rightly tightened budget. The governor is giving them a chance to do a better job for South Florida.

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Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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