State bill to expand Big Cypress Basin authority draws concerns
Proposed state legislation to modify the board overseeing the Big Cypress Basin is drawing concern from Collier County officials and local environmental groups while some Lee County officials and southern municipalities hope it passes.
State Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) introduced the bill in late December. It suggests expanding the authority of the Collier-focused basin board into Lee County by July 1.
The bill proposes ensuring "taxes collected within the Big Cypress Basin be used for projects and flood control operations and maintenance within the counties in which they were collected.”
Rodrigues was unavailable for comment.
At its most recent meeting on Feb. 25, the basin board discussed the bill and heard from South Florida Water Management District staff on potential budget effects the bill’s passage would have.
The district’s administration services director, Candida Heater, told board members the the water district oversees two basins: Big Cypress and Okeechobee. Collier County and a small portion of Monroe are within Big Cypress while Lee County falls under Okeechobee.
Each basin collects taxes to be used within the respective boundaries and the water district collects taxes from both basins.
Taxpayers in Big Cypress pay $11 million annually to the water district and another $11 million to the basin.
Lee County areas that would shift into Big Cypress currently pay three taxes. Annually, $4.4 million goes to the the water district, $4.8 million to the Okeechobee basin and another $1.5 million for Everglades construction projects.
Rodrigues’ bill would eliminate Lee County’s $4.8 million from the Okeechobee basin and in return $4.5 million would go to Big Cypress. The $1.5 million for Everglades projects would be eliminated.
Collier County commissioners have discussed their position on the legislation during multiple meetings, eventually voting Feb. 23 to oppose the bill unless certain amendments are made.
“We were trying not to close door, but we’re not terribly comfortable with the bill,” the board’s chairwoman Penny Taylor said. “It’s the rush of this and pushing it through without proper public input and proper discussion among lawmakers from all jurisdictions involved.”
Collier commissioners proposed three amendments to the bill.
The changes would organize the basin board to include four members from Collier and one from Lee; require taxes within the basin’s boundary be used for regional and local projects to improve flood protection, water quality or natural systems; and delay the effective date to allow for public input and any changes.
Basin board member Dan Waters said he agreed a later effective date for the legislation would be good so the district could prepare for any projects that could lose funding.
During the basin board meeting, Lee County commissioner Brian Hamman spoke in favor of Rodrigues’ bill.
“We have well-documented flooding issues in southern Lee County and we need the money to pay for flood control projects to fix those issues,” he said. “Lee County Commissioners are asking for our residents’ tax dollars to be included in that basin as well and used for the benefit of the county.”
Estero council member Jim Boesch told the board the village also supports the bill.
“Estero is strongly supportive of the boundary modification, especially since it moves the Estero River Watershed into the Big Cypress Basin, which is definitely a strong issue that runs through our community,” he said.
While Lee and Collier county officials hash out political issues, Meredith Budd, the Florida Wildlife Federation’s regional policy director, is focused on the loss of funding to Everglades projects.
“There’s going to be a gap in Everglades funding, and because there’s been such a strong push to fully fund Everglades restoration, the state could make up that deficit,” she said. “But that money has to come from somewhere, and the question is ‘Where?’”
Important and vital initiatives such as Florida Forever and springs restoration have been underfunded, Budd said. The concern is that the $1.5 million gap in Everglades funding would be made up by pulling from these other programs.
At the conclusion of the basin board’s discussion, chairwoman Charlette Roman said there are a couple things to watch while the bill progresses at the capitol.
The bill currently does not include anything to address a possible $2.6 million exclusion that would be needed for basin administration and land management items, she said.
“You know, we would grow. We grow with the money, and we would grow in terms of the area that we covered,” Roman said. “But there's other considerations that are going to have to be made at the governing board level. So, the one thing I asked the board to concentrate on is some of these unfunded things that aren't in the language of the bill.”
Roman also brought up a 2018 agreement between the water district and Lee County that was established after Hurricane Irma.
The agreement allows the district to clear trees and other debris in creeks and estuaries in Lee County to help with flood protection.
The bill is currently working through committees in Tallahassee.
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk