July 11, 2008

Water Managers Say U.S. Sugar Buyout Won’t Hike Tax Rates

By Curtis Morgan, The Miami Herald

Jul. 11--Water managers vowed Thursday to close the $1.75 billion deal for the U.S. Sugar Corp without hiking taxes on South Florida homeowners, but the big buyout will come at the cost of delay for other Everglades projects.

The South Florida Water Management District's proposed budget would scale down, postpone or shift construction work to the federal government -- diverting the savings to buy a swath of sugar fields long coveted by environmentalists.

District board member Charles Duaray sounded skeptical that the district, which only two months ago had been worried about the impact of statewide budget cuts, could easily take on the largest conservation land buy in state history.


"Right now, these are hard numbers to swallow by us and the public," he said.

District executive director Carol Ann Wehle assured board members that the agency could bankroll the landmark purchase without raising taxes. The owner of a $300,000 home in Miami-Dade or Broward now pays $186 a year in property tax to support the district.

"We're not raising the tax rate," she said. "I think that is a very important consideration in the tough times everyone is experiencing."

But, she acknowledged, there are "consequences to living within our means."

The complex sugar deal, which entails both buying land and swaping tracts with other growers, would restore what environmentalists consider the "missing link" between the remnant marsh and Lake Okeechobee and help resolve water-storage and pollution concerns that have plagued the $10.8 billion state-federal Everglades restoration effort.

The trade-off is a budget that would triple the district's annual debt payments to as much as $142 million, at least until it can sell off U.S. Sugar assets in six years, and force delays and overhauls of some other Glades projects.

Over the next year, the district would continue buying land needed to beef up the aging levee around Lake Okeechobee, expand pollution-treatment marshes and overhaul the C-111 canal in South Miami-Dade County, which diverts water from Everglades National Park.


But it would delay work on a reservoir intended to protect the Caloosahatchee River until 2012, downsize and delay until 2010 another reservoir to protect the St. Lucie River and delay for two years a marsh to clean water flowing into Lake Okeechobee.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also will be asked to take over construction of three other projects, including one to help Biscayne Bay. The prospects of federal funding for that are uncertain.

The district also wants to reassess two key water-storage projects -- a controversial plan to drill some 300 wells near Lake Okeechobee and a massive reservoir in Palm Beach County, which now might wind up as a pollution treatment marsh instead.


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