Friction between Big Cypress Basin and SFWMD eases

— After boiling over this summer, fears that Collier County water managers would lose power in a reshuffling at the South Florida Water Management District simmered down Friday.

“I feel much better about it,” said John Sorey, a member of the Big Cypress Basin, the local arm of the West Palm Beach-based water management district.

Basin board members had bristled over a district chart, meant to reflect an agency reorganization, that did not include the Big Cypress Basin and changed the reporting structure for basin engineers.

District officials said the omission was an oversight and that the new chain of command would aid the basin, but basin board members complained that it represented an erosion of authority for the basin’s Executive Director Clarence Tears.

Since then, the organizational chart has been reworked to move Tears’ spot on the chart closer to the district’s top executives.

“I think this is a big improvement,” basin board member Liesa Priddy said.

In one-on-ones with basin board members, district Director Carol Wehle and Deputy Executive Director Tom Olliff, a former Collier County manager, helped smooth over the controversy.

Olliff, who attended Friday’s basin board meeting on Marco Island, said district officials would attend basin board meetings more regularly.

He said he hopes the basin board understands how much support the basin has at the district headquarters.

Tears told the board he was confident that the reorganization would not hamper his ability to carry out the board’s priorities.

“It truly is to be more responsive to the basin,” he said.

Naples resident Dennis “Duke” Vasey told the board he remains concerned that the reorganization leaves the basin in a weaker position.

“It looks like a power grab,” he said.

The state Legislature carved Collier County out of the larger 16-county district in 1976, an arrangement generally seen as a boon to Collier County taxpayers.

The basin can set its own tax rate and approves its own budget, subject to the district’s Governing Board approval.

Collier taxpayers pay less for water management overall than other counties in the district.

Money raised by the basin’s tax levy stays in Collier County, to the tune of $15.4 million this year.

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