Proposed changes in SWFWMD board draw fire from Manatee officials

skennedy@bradenton.comFebruary 1, 2013 

MANATEE -- Proposed state legislation that would dilute Manatee County's representation on the Southwest Florida Water Management District governing board have drawn fire from local officials.

The bills, which would eliminate 4 of 13 seats on the board, could curtail local control of how Manatee tax dollars are spent, or even divert local tax dollars to projects outside the county, according to a letter the Manatee County Commission sent opposing their passage.

The commission supported the current makeup of the board, which oversees water issues in a 16-county region, it said in the letter.

Under the current arrangement, Manatee County holds its own seat. If the proposed changes pass, it would hold a seat jointly with Sarasota County.

Manatee County not only supplies water for its own residents and businesses, but for six municipal partners and Sarasota County as well, and boasts a long record of progressive stewardship of its water resources and reliability as a water supplier, the letter said.

It calls the bills, House Bill 147 and an identical companion, Senate Bill 412, "harmful" and recommends the county's continued direct representation on the water authority board.

Manatee County officials are not the only ones who will be opposing the idea. Pinellas County will also be in opposition when its commission reviews legislative priorities in coming weeks, said Pinellas Assistant County Administrator Carl Harness.

The House version was filed by state Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, with state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, sponsoring the upper chamber's version.

Manatee Commissioner Vanessa Baugh was concerned that Sarasota County politicians were pushing for the bills' passage.

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino complained, "We don't need to be removed from the equation. We're giving water to Sarasota County."

County Commissioner John Chappie questioned why, if the board is working well with 13 members, should its membership be changed to nine? He urged the commission to act quickly.

"I think we need to take some type of action, and the sooner, the better," he said earlier this week, adding that its passage would have "negative ramifications" for Manatee County.

The legislation's intent is to provide consistency and fairness in the composition of the governing board, since four other boards across the state have nine members each, Pilon said Thursday.

"My intent is not to short anybody on representation but to create a fair scheme," said Pilon, who acknowledged that Polk County officials don't like the plan, either.

"I appreciate the counties' letting me know how they feel about it, it's understandable when they first see it," Pilon said.

He plans to host a "stakeholders' meeting" in March to take suggestions on how to create a fair balance on the SWFWMD board.

Drinking water for the customers of Manatee County Utilities Department is a blend of purified groundwater and purified surface water.

In 2012, an average of 13.66 million gallons per day of deep groundwater and 12.71 million gallons per day of surface water was used, according to Amy Pilson, a county spokeswoman.

Groundwater is pumped from the Floridan Aquifer from seven, 1,200-foot deep wells in eastern Manatee County; surface water comes from the Lake Manatee Reservoir in central Manatee County.

The county has taken stringent measures to protect its water sources.

"In the late 1980s, Manatee County voters approved the purchase of 20,500 acres of the 82,000-acre watershed area, which drains into and includes the reservoir and wellfield," the county website said.

"County and state agencies have continued to purchase additional watershed acreage, and today approximately 35,000 acres are in public ownership."

The Florida Legislature session starts on March 5 in Tallahassee.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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