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New SFWMD Boss Vows 'No-Brainer' Budget Cuts

June 2, 2011 - 6:00pm

Florida's water-management districts are facing big revenue cuts, but the new leader of the state's largest system isn't sweating.

"There are a lot of inefficiencies," Melissa Meeker, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, told the second annual Florida Water Forum in Orlando on Friday.

Concerned about unbridled taxing authority, lack of oversight and clashes with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the 2011 Legislature, at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott, ordered a 30 percent reduction in ad valorem taxes at the state's five regional water districts.

For SFWMD, that represents a $128 million budget cut, and Meeker said Friday that she will balance the books with actual spending reductions -- not just draining reserves.

Targeting salaries and benefits, Meeker said SFWMD "will set the pace" in trimming personnel costs, especially at the upper-management level.

She called such moves a "no-brainer" at the district that spans 16 counties from Orlando to the Florida Keys.

Meeker assumed her new duties June 1 after a brief stint as DEP's deputy secretary of water policy and ecosystem projects, where she helped develop oversight of water-management districts.

The SFWMD has been under fire for its multibillion-dollar U.S. Sugar land deal engineered by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. And Meeker acknowledged that future acquisitions are on hold.

"We already bought phase one. The challenge is what's left in the central Everglades system. But those are years off, and I'm not worried about it," she said.

But Meeker said critical programs, such as work around Lake Okeechobee, remain on track.

"People will be pleasantly surprised by what we can do. And if I can't do that, I'll go back to Tallahassee or back to my company," she vowed.

A trained biologist and a former executive with Tetra Tech, an international environmental consulting firm, Meeker said she is committed to streamlining water-district bureaucracy, including what she termed "death by meetings."

Asked about future cost-saving initiatives, Meeker suggested that more collaboration by the state's water management districts could wring out more savings.

"There's no reason we can't centralize back-office functions like human resources and payroll. I see pilot projects moving forward on this very quickly," she said.

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Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 802-5341.

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