Calling the purchase of U.S. Sugar Corporation's land an overpriced corporate bailout, tea partiers Wednesday urged the South Florida Water Management District to scrap the deal.
More than 100 protesters -- hailing from Punta Gorda to Port St. Lucie -- converged on the district's West Palm Beach headquarters to blast the governing board's plan to acquire the land for Everglades restoration.
"The district's own analysis shows this purchase will ultimately cost taxpayers $12 billion. You have an escape clause in this deal, and that's what I'm suggesting you do," said Marianne Moran of Tea Party in Action.
Gov. Charlie Crist, who appointed all nine members of the district's governing board, was pilloried in absentia as a "lame duck" who engineered an ill-conceived "bailout" for U.S. Sugar, one of his longtime corporate contributors.
Skepticism about the deal was heightened when board members and district staffers gave mixed responses to pointed questions about whether the approved $536 million purchase price is in the water district's upcoming budget.
"It's complicated," said Chairman Eric Buermann, who added, "The board would not proceed by raising taxes. We would live within resources."
District officials have recommended no increase in taxes for fiscal 2011. Citing falling land values, analysts anticipate that the district's revenues will be reduced by $61 million in the coming year.
The board is scheduled to vote on its 2011 budget in September.
Tea party speakers flipped the district's financial analysis by noting that the value of the U.S. Sugar property also has fallen sharply.
"They're talking about paying 2007 prices in 2010. That's upside down," Steven Rosenblum, a candidate for State House District 89, said during an outdoor rally that preceded the SFWMD meeting.
While some protesters called on the board to delay or renegotiate the purchase, more urged the board to sink the deal altogether, characterizing it as scientifically unsound.
"This is an arm of environmental extremists," declared Jim McGovern, a member of the Martin County 9/12 Committee.
Speakers from the Sierra Club and Audubon defended the district's action while casting aspersions on the tea parties' demand to cut spending.
"If this project was in Afghanistan or Iraq, you would support it," Drew Martin of the Sierra Club said to a chorus of boos.
Buermann acknowledged, "This deal as it is currently constituted is a challenge" and, in regard to funding, he admitted, "We don't know where we're going from here."
The proposed Everglades land purchase is currently under review at the Florida Supreme Court, which is examining the district's financing package.
Buermann expects that the project will pass muster at the court, and noted that future legal action will push more such ventures forward.
"Court rulings will require acquisition of more land to restore the Everglades with clean water. This is our water supply.
"The Everglades is an issue about civilization, whether we can continue to inhabit South Florida. We're under tremendous pressure," Buermann said.
The district's 73,000-acre purchase plan has fractured Floridians environmentally, economically and politically.
Unveiled with much fanfare by Crist in 2008, the project was subsequently downsized from the original $1.75 billion deal. The revised plan contains an option for 107,000 more acres.
The sale of the U.S. Sugar tracts purportedly will "save" the Everglades through the restoration of a southbound flow way. Critics, including Florida Crystals, a rival sugar concern with large land holdings of its own, have called the purchasescientifically unproven. Others deem it a political payoff for one of Crist's biggest financial backers.
Everett Wilkinson, state director of the South Florida Tea Party, presented 2,000 petitions opposing the deal.
"We're against all kinds of bailouts," said Wilkinson, who is based in Palm Beach Gardens.
Rosa Durando, a longtime Palm Beach County resident, is no fan of the tea party movement. "They're ignorant, self-serving bastards," she fumes. Still, Durando agrees that the land deal is badly overpriced.
"It's highway robbery," she said.
Durando, who said she favors sound restoration projects, complained that the U.S. Sugar acquisition was "mishandled from the beginning."
"If (the water district) had come out with dimensions and paths for a flow way, they would have gotten more public support and less cynicism," Durando said.
But, she added, "The (state and district) agencies have not acted properly and the (district) board is totally ignorant. They're political appointments."
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.