Amendment 1 Funding Diversions Continue

Amendment 1 was supposed to help to save the Everglades.

Instead, it is becoming somewhat like the Everglades.

That is, the money that voters authorized in 2014 for spending for conservation lands to reboot the gutted Florida Forever program is being diverted in ways that resemble the way South Florida water management system diverts water the Everglades needs to satisfy the political demands of agriculture and development interests.

Ever since voters overwhelming approved the measure, the Florida Legislature has worked hard to make sure it isn’t used as the voters or the amendment’s sponsors intended, falling back on legalistic arguments about the ballot language’s loose wording.

So, instead of working to take care of the backlog of high-priority conservation purchases in this part of the state along the Lake Wales Ridge, the Green Swamp and the Kissimmee River Valley, legislators are proposing to use the money for beach renourishment to keep the tourism industry happy and for a variety of water supply projects to keep the development industry happy.

The Legislature has also allowed state agencies to use Amendment 1 money for routine operating expenses, which is not only inappropriate, but short-sighted.

This is a problem because with the economy improving and development pressure ramping up again, the owners of some of the land targeted for conservation purchase and protection may get tired of waiting for the state to act and sell the land to someone else.

In addition, as the real estate market heats up again, the cost of the land will increase because its market value will increase, which will affect how far the conservation acquisition dollars go.

Some legislators are treating the Amendment 1 money as though it was part of the general appropriations fund that can be used for anything rather than restricted fund that’s only supposed to be spent on certain things.

This kind of financial deceit is nothing new in Tallahassee, but it’s usually not this blatant.

If legislators want funds to improve water infrastructure or any other worthwhile public project in Florida, why don’t they take a more honest approach and come up with a logical funding source that has some rational nexus rather than raiding another state fund for the sake of expediency.

It’s hard to characterize this as anything but grand theft.

Most people who get caught doing this are sent to jail, not to Tallahassee.

Maybe Florida needs another constitutional amendment to fix that problem, too.

Looking For Everglades Northern Reservoir? Try The Lakes

I’ve been following the debate over whether to store water north of south of Lake Okeechobee with some interest.

It’s complicated because part of it involves trying to make sure the crappy water in Lake Okeechobee doesn’t foul the coastal estuaries again and the crappy water in the rest of the South Florida water management system doesn’t’ either let the Everglades die of thirst or salt water intrusion or upstream pollution.

If you want to deliver polluted water, canals are your guy. If you don’t, reservoirs are an alternative.

That is, you have to store and treat water somewhere what’s left of the system if you’re in touch with reality and realize it’s 2017 and not 1817.

My question is rather than fighting over the cost of building new reservoirs north of the lake or south of the lake, why not rethink using an existing Northern Reservoir of sorts. It’s called the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.

The Everglades plan calls for 200,000 acre feet of storage, plus some additional land for treatment.

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and concluded you have about half of that in the major lakes in the chain as well as some connected wetland systems that are planned to be rehydrated anyway if you adjusted the regulated levels a bit.

This approach, which I’m sure has been figured somewhere into someone’s calculations, has the additional advantage of storing the water containing a lot of the upper basin’s pollution from sewer plants and stormwater runoff as well as the traditional agricultural manure and fertilizer contributions and legacy loads from past practices.

This isn’t everything that’s needed, but it seems to be quicker and lower tech and less contentious than some of the discussion that’s going on.

I’m just saying.

Legislators’ Tax Bill Has Environmental Downside

The news out of Tallahassee is unfailingly disturbing these days.

One piece of legislation to watch is a committee bill that squeaked out of the House Ways and Means Committee.

While most of the bill’s language is a big concern to local governments, because it would diminish their home-rule powers, there’s a provision that could severely limit referendums.

This affects us in Polk County because there is still some thought of eventually attempting to mount a renewal of the Environmental Lands tax to purchase additional lands to finish the job started with funds from the 1994 referendum.

The referendum, which imposed a property tax at a rate of 20 cents per $1,000 of appraised value, expired in 2015 and was not continued even though it could have been administratively. That’s because the money as not used to purchase bonds but was instead pursued on a more fiscally sound pay-as-you-go basis.

Actually, the County Commission did continue the tax, they just decided to divert half the revenue to road projects and the rest to parks and ambulances.

If there were to be another referendum, it would occur sometime after 2018, when the Polk County School Board is scheduled to place a sales tax referendum on the ballot to pay for school construction costs. Putting more than one tax referendum on a ballot is poor politics, which is why 2020 would be the earliest the environmental referendum could occur.

Polk’s charter properly requires all tax referendums to be placed on the general election ballot.

The proposed bill’s limit on referendums would prohibit them in some situations, depending on what the County Commission has decided on tax rates in recent years. It would also require 60 percent approval.

Majority rule would go out the window.

If that 60 percent provision had been in place in 1994, there would be no Environmental Lands Program, no Circle B Bar Reserve and perhaps no Colt Creek State Park. The rest of the archipelago of local environmental preserves we can enjoy today would not exist.

I don’t have any information on whether this idea has attracted any support in the Florida Senate, which would be necessary for passage.

Polk Vision Reboots; Can Environment Be Included?

The Ledger reports that Polk Vision is planning a series of public meetings around Polk County during the next two months to hear from citizens about their ideas about what can be done to make this a better place for all of us.

I wonder if there’s any interest in adding completion of the work to protect the natural environment for the sake of future generations to the agenda.

The 2004 meetings after Polk Vision originally organized served as a catalyst to get more money for Polk’s underfunded park system.

Polk County’s voters got together in 1994 and told the County Commission they wanted to tax themselves to buy and manage some of Polk’s remaining environmental jewels. That program was a success, but the work is incomplete.

There are still some missing pieces, some land whose purchase would fill gaps that would accomplish important things. It would protect entire ecosystems rather than mere fragments through the ownership of larger contiguous tracts that could be fenced, managed with prescribed fire and restored to further protect globally imperiled species.

This primarily involves land west of Crooked Lake, the only Outstanding Florida Water in Polk, though some land along the Peace River and in the Green Swamp Area of Critical of State Concern may offer opportunities as well.

The next Polk Vision meeting will occur at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Auburndale Civic Center in downtown Auburndale and will continue through the next month or so, wrapping up at April 13 at the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce.

The meetings occur at different times of the day, so pick a date or time that fits your schedule. All but two of meetings occur during the work day, which may limit attendance for some people who may want to get involved.

To view the meeting schedule, go to http://portal.polkvision.com/ .

Hilochee Will Be Topic Thursday

Mike Blondin, who oversees Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in Polk and Lake counties, will be the guest speaker at the next meeting Thursday at 7 p.m. at Circle B Bar Reserve.

The Polk section of Hilochee, known as the Osprey Unit, lies between County Road 557 and U.S. 27 along Interstate 4 in the Green Swamp Area of Critical Concern .

The property was originally planned to be developed into an industrial park.

There is seasonal hunting here. The site is open all year for day use for hiking, nature study, bicycling, bank fishing and horseback riding.

One of the issues raised in the latest review of the property’s management plan is what options there are for increasing public recreational access and increasing parking for day use.

Wildlife on the site includes Sandhill Cranes, Gopher Tortoise, Wild Turkey, various wading birds and a number of songbirds. Hilochee also has a good butterfly population.

The property, along with other conservation lands, was unsuccessfully proposed for surplussing by state officials a few years ago, but it remained in public ownership.

Do You Know What Toxins Region’s Stacks, Pipes Are Spewing?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the sinkhole in the gypsum stack at Mosaic’s New Wales fertilizer plant, but what do you know about the hazardous chemicals that are being released by local industrial plants every year.

The database is called the Toxic Release Inventory. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues it annually, though there’s a time lag.

The most recent report is for chemicals released in 2015.

It is searchable down to the county level geographically and also by industrial sector (power plants, manufacturing plants etc.)

The most recent report lists the following totals (in pounds) for counties in the area.

Polk: 4,309,229

Sumter: 280,950

Highlands: 61,156

Lake: 34,160

Hardee: 20,594

DeSoto: 0

Fertilizer plants such as the New Wales plant and power plants, particularly Lakeland’s coal-burning McIntosh plant, make up most of Polk’s totals.

Go to this link https://iaspub.epa.gov/triexplorer/tri_release.chemical and work down to whichever county or industry or chemical or combination of any of those that interest you.

One thing on the data. It is often to make a direct connection between emissions and environmental or health threats without additional analysis.

A separate listing called Right to Know lists the amount of chemicals of certain types and in amounts above specified threshold amounts that are stored at local industrial plants.

These disclosures trace their inception to the Bhopal chemical disaster at the Union Carbide plant in 1984.

Got Ideas For Polk’s Charter? Read This

The County Commission is planning a work session for 9 a.m. April 11 in Room 407. One of the topics will be the appointment of members to the next Charter Review Commission.

Under the charter, which you can read under the Government tab on the Polk County Government website, the new charter review panel must be appointed by July 1.

If you’d like to be considered for a seat on the panel, now’s the time to put your name in.

It will have 13 members. County Commission Chair Melony Bell will appoint three members. The other four county commissioners will appoint two each. The remaining two members will be appointed by the county’s constitutional officers.

The Charter Review Commission’s meetings are open to the public. Its final report is due July 1, 2018.

It is not obligated to recommend any changes to the charter and the last review panel strongly resisted putting most amendments suggested on the ballot.

Some of the changes suggested in the past included expanded the number of commissioners, making the seats non-partisan and asking voters to reconsider a decision made in 2000 to restrict commission pay to half of what is allowed under state law.

Any proposed charter changes would be placed on the November 2018 ballot and would not take effect unless approved by the voters.