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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman April 1, 2011

Senate budget chief criticizes water management district for sitting on taxpayer cash

Here's a new one: The Senate budget committee chairman says the water management district that includes the Tampa Bay area is so overflowing with money that it could run for two years without collecting a dollar more in taxes.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, is making the claim as part of his proposal to fold the Southwest Florida Water Management District budget -- along with the budgets of the four other water management districts -- into the general state budget.

"When I see $850 million, half of which is not reserved for anything, and we've essentially allowed them to collect taxes on people when they really didn't need the money, I don't understand that," Alexander told reporters on March 29, 2011.

On March 31, Alexander made a similar claim, telling members of the Senate budget committee that the Southwest Florida Water Management District has $850 million in "reserves."

The talk about the water management district stuck out to several people, who asked us if it could be true. Specifically we wanted to know: Does the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, have enough money to operate for more than two years without levying taxes?

The state's five water management districts generally operate independently, but their governing boards are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, and the governor must approve water management district budgets each year. Alexander wants more control over district budgets to potentially lower the property taxes they collect, and to provide additional oversight of the taxing entities.

Alexander's office began requesting detailed financial information from Swiftmud a few weeks ago, said David Rathke, the district's legislative affairs director.

The water management district covers 16 counties surrounding the Tampa Bay area and operates with a budget of about $280 million. Of that, about $160 million comes from property taxes, and about $76 million was carried over from previous years' budgets. The rest of the budget, around $44 million, is comprised of local, state and federal funds.

On top of that, the water management district has separate pots of money for different types of projects and for future planning, said Rathke, Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix and finance director Daryl Pokrana.

• $298 million set aside to fulfill outstanding contracts.

• $78 million allocated for specific projects where contracts have not yet been finalized.

• $182 million reserved for future projects that have neither been identified nor approved.

Adding in the yearly $280 million budget brings the total to $838 million, or approximately the $850 million Alexander is talking about.

The problem with Alexander's claim is that most of the money is obligated to ongoing projects or part of the district's yearly budget. Or it will soon become obligated as part of contracts for projects. They're not reserves in the way most people would think about it. "A lot of these projects are multiyear projects," Pokrana said. The water management district may look like it has a lot of money, he said, in part because it has no debt and does not issue bonds to finance projects.

Some of the money set aside is funding a pipeline project that would transfer reclaimed water from the city of Lakeland to the Tampa Electric Company so it could be used for the electric company's operations instead of drinking water, Felix said. Other funds are being allocated for a restoration project in Sawgrass Lake in Pinellas County and to create a wetland treatment system on Lake Hancock in Polk County.

Alexander said Swiftmud could forgo property tax collections for more than two years -- which would mean giving up at least $320 million in tax revenues (the annual amount the district collects multiplied by two). But the math doesn't add up.

The district could bottom out $182 million in long-term planning and project funding. And it could postpone or cancel anticipated contracts for projects, freeing up an additional $78 million.

But that adds up to only $260 million.

The rest of the money is either part of Swiftmud's annual budget or being used to fund current, ongoing contracts.

Alexander was trying to make the point that Swiftmud's bank account needs pruning. The district does have $182 million stored away to be used for future projects. But Alexander has overstated the issue by saying the Southwest Florida Water Management District has enough money in savings to run without levying taxes for more than two years. We rate this claim False.

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