Friction between Big Cypress Basin and SFWMD bubbles up

— Tensions are heating up again over who is in charge of water management decisions in Collier County.

The state Legislature carved Collier County out of the larger South Florida Water Management District in 1976, creating the Big Cypress Basin, but the set-up has been fraught with friction between the two agencies.

“It’s an issue about power and money,” said John Sorey, a Big Cypress Basin board member and Naples city councilman.

In the latest incident, Big Cypress Basin board members bristled this summer over not being included on a district organizational chart meant to reflect a recent district reorganization.

Water management district officials said the omission of the basin was an inadvertent oversight and did not reflect any change in the relationship between the basin and the West Palm Beach-based district.

“We are all one agency,” district spokesman Gabe Margasak said last week.

Some Basin board members said the organizational chart reflected an ongoing erosion of the authority of the basin’s Executive Director Clarence Tears.

Lurking just below the surface of the controversy, though, are fears that the district is making a play for the basin’s tax base to pay for expensive Everglades restoration projects.

The district is dispatching Assistant Executive Director Tom Olliff, a former Collier County manager, to the basin’s Oct. 30 meeting to try to quell the bad feelings.

“I think us being omitted from the organization chart was a red flag,” Basin board member Liesa Priddy said.

She said the basin and the district have had a good working relationship.

“We just want to be sure that doesn’t change,” she said.

The district already has issued a new organizational chart showing the Big Cypress Basin board as an offshoot of the reporting line between the Governing Board and the district’s Executive Director.

Tears, the basin’s executive director, reports to the district’s Fort Myers Service Center, an arrangement unchanged in the recent reorganization.

Also unchanged in the reorganization are Basin field station employees reporting through the district field operations department.

As of the Oct. 8 effective date of the reorganization, the basin’s engineers report to the district’s engineering division.

Having Tears report to the Fort Myers Service Center instead of higher up the chain of command “doesn’t even make sense to me,” Basin board member Fred Thomas said.

“Not even close,” Thomas said.

Basin board member Pam Mac’Kie said she doesn’t see a problem.

“We’ve gotten great service from the basin and we’ll continue to get great service from the basin,” said Mac’Kie, a former Collier County commissioner and former deputy executive director at the water management district.

“It doesn’t pay to get fussy with them (district officials) when we don’t need to fuss,” she said.

By virtue of its creation in 1976, the basin is able to set its own budget and property tax rates, subject to approval of the district’s Governing Board.

That approval is routinely granted and basin taxes that are collected in Collier County are spent there.

The arrangement is generally seen as a good deal for Collier County taxpayers.

Taxpayers in the other 15 counties of the district pay $62.40 per $100,000 of assessed value in water management taxes.

Collier County taxpayers pay $48.14 per $100,000 of assessed value.

That tax is comprised of a districtwide levy, which is estimated to send $17.3 million back to West Palm Beach, and the Basin’s tax rate.

Money raised by the Basin’s own tax rate stays in Collier County, to the tune of an estimated $15.4 million this year.

Collier’s rate is cheaper because the rest of the district pays an Okeechobee Basin tax.

The basin’s status also means that Collier County taxpayers are not assessed the tax that the other 15 counties in the district are charged to pay for the construction of Everglades restoration projects.

The basin, though, cannot enter into contracts, hire employees, sue or be sued, acquire property or collect taxes.

“The Big Cypress Basin is a subdistrict of and subordinate to the South Florida Water Management District,” the district’s senior specialist attorney Frank Bartolone wrote in a Sept. 28 eight-page memo.

“Exercise and accomplishment of all of functions of the Basin (except for adoption of its budget and request to levy taxes) can occur only through the District,” he wrote.

The only way to change the relationship between the district and the basin is to get the state Legislature to change the law that set up the basin.

“I guess we’ll have to live with it,” Sorey said.

Sorey said the basin’s objections this summer got the district’s attention and that the incident has “clarified the reporting relationship.”

“Although my intention is that if they (the district) starts getting too far out of line, we’ll have to push back,” Sorey said.

In 2001, a skirmish erupted over whether the basin or the district had control over Tears’ salary.

The basin board wanted to increase Tears’ salary from $84,000 to $100,000 to put him on par with other similar water management district employees, but the district balked.

Eventually, the two boards reached an uneasy truce and the district approved a $92,000 salary for Tears.

“There’s room for turf wars in there, the way it’s set up, it’s not a perfect situation,” said former Naples’ state representative Mary Ellen Hawkins, the driving force behind the creation of the basin in 1976.

She said she set up the basin to guard against a raid on Collier County tax dollars to pay for East Coast projects and to put local water management decisions in the hands of a local board, appointed by the governor.

Hawkins remembers the fight she had on her hands to create the basin more than 30 years ago.

“I think maybe they’re still fighting,” Hawkins said last week.

Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.

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