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Who’s Right? (Or Who Is Less Wrong?)

There is very little we can say about the need to address issues concerning the Indian River Lagoon that has not be said before. Citizens in Brevard County took those issues seriously and in 2016 voted to pass a 1/2 sales tax increase to fund the cleanup. The ten year tax was estimated to raise $34 million dollars a year but instead has been raising more than expected:

Nearly $44 million was collected from the sales tax during 2017, compared with the initial estimate that $34 million would be raised. In all, the latest estimates project that the special lagoon sales tax will raise $486 million over a 10-year period.

On December 28, 2018 Representative Randy Fine announced that he was proposing a bill that would increase funding for the lagoon and also address the release of raw sewage into the lagoon.

Florida Rep. Randy Fine on Friday filed a bill for the upcoming state legislative session that provides $50 million in annual state matching funds for Indian River Lagoon rehabilitation projects.

Fine’s measure also calls for “dramatic increases” in the fines for illegal raw sewage spills, which, if passed, could impact municipalities and force them to upgrade sewer and drainage infrastructure or suffer a big financial hit.

[….]

Fine’s bill sets aside $50 million annually in matching funds for three types of projects that would benefit the Indian River Lagoon:

  • Sewer line extensions to inhabited areas that presently do not have sewer system access, such as the area south of Melbourne Beach.
  • Septic-to-sewer conversions in areas where there is a sewer line but opportunity for more hookups;
  • Sewer system plant upgrades to remove nutrients from what is presently treated, but not nutrient-free, wastewater.

The legislation would also impose fines of one dollar per gallon of raw sewage spill on the entity releasing the sewage, with an alternative of the entity paying $2 per gallon in repairs and maintenance to ensure the issue does not happen again.

When hurricane Irma rolled through Brevard County, an estimated 22 million gallons of sewage went into the lagoon. Under Fine’s proposal, the affected entities would pay $22 million in fines or $44 million in repairs which is the same amount that the Indian River Lagoon sales tax took in during all of 2017.

While the fines are an interesting idea, as the article notes, the fines would impact municipalities which means taxpayers. The taxpayers would be on the hook for the actions of government entities they do not control and who have failed the citizens. If an entity gets fined under this bill, the entity would have two options. First would be to divert funds from other projects or secondly, raise rates to cover the fine. Who do you think is going to pay for either option?

(It should also be noted that Fine proposed a similar bill for matching funds in 2017 while criticizing local officials for the sales tax proposal.

Fine contends that “local politicians made a bad decision” by asking voters to approve the sales tax without getting the state’s assurance beforehand that there would be matching funds from the state.

“They did it without knowing that matching funds were there,” Fine said.

A case in point: A bill was introduced by Florida Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Rockledge, in the recently ended 2018 session, to provide $50 million a year “for projects dedicated to the conservation and management of the Indian River Lagoon,” with money coming from the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

But neither her legislation, Senate Bill 786, nor the companion House Bill 339 made it out of committee. Fine was a co-sponsor on House Bill 339, and Rep. Rene Plasencia, whose House district includes northern Brevard, was one of two main sponsors.

We see the criticism of the sale tax issue as a bit of a slap in the face of citizens who voted to get funding and start rather than wait on the state. If the state doesn’t help, should Brevardians have left the lagoon to die a slow death?

Fine’s newly proposed legislation, in our opinion, should be taken in light of an opinion piece written by Save Our Indian River Lagoon Citizens Oversight Committee member John Byron. In the piece entitled “Seven Things You May Not Know About The Indian River Lagoon,” Byron writes:

1. Raw sewage does the lagoon little harm.

Nasty stuff. But how big a problem? Normal weather, no problem at all. The issue is heavy rain. No sewer system is designed for 100-year rainfalls. When these happen (more often than the label says), the law allows dumping treated wastewater into the lagoon. But pipes break and generators fail, so we’ve had some ugly discharges of untreated sewage during recent hurricanes.

But these discharges contribute less than .5 percent of the nutrients in the lagoon. Repeat: less than .5 percent.

Certainly, it’s a public-health issue. But it contributes so little to the nutrient load that lagoon funds should never be substituted for sewer fees already available to fix the plumbing and upgrade the plants. (emphasis ours)

It’s an interesting circular discussion Fine and Byron have set up. Fine proposes that discharges be fined large amounts of dollars – dollars which would go to either the lagoon cleanup fund or be spent on projects. Byron says the discharges are not a major issue and the plants already have the money and should be addressing the issue. Fine wants to either take that money away or force government entities to potentially overspend in a fiscal year.

It should also be noted that Byron plays a bit of slight of hand, as he often does in his writings.

Raw sewage does the lagoon little harm…..

…..the law allows dumping treated wastewater into the lagoon

Raw sewage is not “treated waste water” and “treated waste water” is not raw sewage.

We are baffled by the attempt of misdirection there.

Byron continues:

3. Funding is not the problem.

Less than 2 percent of the projected lagoon half-cent sales tax income has actually been spent — 98 percent of potential 10-year receipts from the tax has yet to go to work. And this is not the only funding source. Water management districts, Florida’s Inland Navigation District, allocations from the Legislature and Congress — these all add big bucks to fixing the lagoon. We’re not being held back by lack of funds.

If funding is not the problem, why is Fine seeking more funding?

If Byron’s figures are right and less than 2% of the $486 million dollars projected revenue has been spent, that’s a relatively paltry $9,720,000 dollars in two years.

Byron also says that we should “stick with the plan.”

That “plan” included an “update” to the original plan that was first proposed and presented to the Brevard County Commission.

In March of 2018, at a meeting where the update was presented, Commissioner Isnardi said:

That’s when Isnardi piped in with some pointed comments.

“Now, we’re taking brand-new projects because we have more money than we know how to spend it — we can’t spend it fast enough,” Isnardi said. “When we have existing projects in the county that have to do with sewer and drainage issues, why wouldn’t we put the money there? Because this money wasn’t anticipated. This money wasn’t counted on. This wasn’t part of our plan.”

Isnardi wondered about vetting new projects, “versus taking care of the failing infrastructure, sewer, drainage problems we have now that negatively impact the lagoon, because we’re dumping sewage into the lagoon.”

Let’s put this all together.

Isnardi says we have money that is coming in “faster than we can spend it” and wanted to address the sewage issue while Fine says we need more funds while potentially taking money away from fixing and addressing the sewage issue (and penalizing citizens in the long run) while Byron says we shouldn’t be using any funds on the sewage issue because the money is in place and all monies should go directly to lagoon projects themselves.

If we have more money that we can spend, why the need for matching funds from the state? Is this a genuine concern from Fine or a second attempt to do what he was unable to do before?

On top of all that, in May of 2018, the Lagoon Committee discussed funding oversight and public information programs due to what was perceived as a “disconnect from the public.” The cost of the oversight and public education? One million dollars a year.

Committee member John Byron said he believes that, whenever someone makes an “information-laden” presentation to the committee in the future, the presenter needs to include an “elevator speech” — a simple summary that can be delivered in a short amount of time.

“I think that’s part of the deliverables in all future studies,” said Byron, who is a retired commanding officer for the Naval Ordnance Test Unit at Cape Canaveral. “Give us 600 words, Give us an elevator speech. Give us five bullets that matter.”

He wants there to be “a citizens’ report” that meets two criteria — “it’s short and it’s clear.”

Byron said the standard for every future presentation should include “what this presentation means to the future of the lagoon in layman terms.”

Other committee members suggested translating the scientific reports to simple memes, infographics, bullet points or short videos that could be disseminated on social media.

Also during the meeting, committee member Courtney Barker expressed concerns about what she says was “misinformation” being spread by some members of the public about whether there is a need to spend $1 million a year from the sales tax on monitoring the performance of projects in the plan.

“It’s financially — I guess ‘stupid’ is the only word that comes to my mind right now — to move forward with such dollar amounts that we’re using here on projects that may not work. It would be terrible to do that,” said Barker, who is the city manager in Satellite Beach. “So we have to monitor. So $1 million a year is a small price to pay to do this. We have to do this.”

Committee alternate John Durkee agreed, saying: “The word is ‘irresponsible’ if we spend a half-billion dollars in taxpayer money, and don’t know what the heck we’re doing and don’t know if we’re getting results. That’s wrong.”

(In context, allocating a million dollars for one year of this is 10.28% the amount of money spend on projects in two years according to Byron.)

One would think that any project undertaken for the lagoon would have monitoring built in to the project cost and not have a need for a separate line item of funding, but that is our opinion. Furthermore, if the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Project Plan Citizen Oversight Committee is proposing solutions that are dubious and the County Commission is approving those plans, what the heck are we doing?

The Indian River Lagoon is not the first body of water that is facing or has faced this type of needed cleanup. Proposed solutions should have been proven in other areas, jurisdictions and waters.

Between politicians and committee members not only not being on the same page, but maybe not even on the same book, we are starting to wonder if the citizens have been sold a bill of goods.

Again.

One would think that as the lagoon affects us all, the lagoon would not be a political issue, yet it has become one. Instead of quick decisive actions, what we have seen is the slow pace of government and the “look at what I did!” disease that seems to infect every government project, entity and board these days.

It’s a new year and the one resolution that the County Commission and the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Project Plan Citizen Oversight Committee need to make and stick to is to resolve getting their butt in gear.



One Response to “Who’s Right? (Or Who Is Less Wrong?)”

  1. Hometown says:

    Pardon my rant but this whole thing is a typical bureaucratic fiasco. I’ve lived here pretty much forever and have witnessed the steady decline of our Indian river lagoon due to continued over-development (without any serious efforts put in place to protect this fragile ecosystem). I recently spoke with a couple biologists taking water samples and asked them point blank “who is in charge” and they quoted me about a half dozen alphabet soup organizations operating independently, some government and some private. While I think they all have good intentions without a single person, agency, or committee being put in charge and held accountable we will continue to pour money down a black hole with very little real improvements being made. All decisions should be based on science and not influenced by political posturing and bureaucratic empire building. The more money being put on the table will only encourage more wasteful spending. Public education, creating learning centers, and pamphlets is great but really doesn’t do a thing to improve water quality. Either the state or county needs to step up and say we are in charge and all funding should go through that organization and they must be held accountable. This multi pronged organization approach dilutes results and holds no one accountable.

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