Bad 'fix' weakens Manatee County impact on Swiftmud governing bard

February 7, 2013 

Visionary and determined Manatee County commissioners built a lasting legacy with the completion of the Lake Manatee Reservoir in 1967, ensuring a water supply to not only county residents but for people around the region -- including Sarasota County.

Now two Sarasota legislators want to pry away Manatee's representative on the Southwest Water Management District, better known as Swiftmud.

Under current law, the governor must appoint one resident of Manatee County to the agency's governing board. Sarasota County shares one appointment with Charlotte County but this new bill pairs Sarasota with Manatee in the competition for one seat.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, sponsor of SB 412, and Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, sponsor of HB 147, are attempting to "fix" something that isn't broken. Swiftmud encompasses all or parts of 16 counties and a board with 13 members represents a broader cross section of the district's population -- and this has been working fine for two decades.

But the Sarasota County lawmakers are trying to sell this as merely a way to gain consistency in the composition of the board since the state's other four water management districts only hold nine members. But these are unpaid volunteer positions, so cost can't be a factor.

Pilon plans to host a stakeholder meeting this month to hear ideas on ways to create a fair balance on Swiftmud's board.

Here's one: Manatee County earned a dedicated seat on the board as a government with the foresight and commitment to building an expensive and enduring water supply, one that serves well beyond its borders. Lawmakers should look elsewhere to solve this so-called fairness issue. Currently, a Sarasota resident does sit on the board.

Upon learning of this bad legislation, the Manatee County Commission drew up a letter outlining its opposition. There's no disputing one key point: This county boasts a decades-long history of progressive stewardship of its water resources -- and dependability as a supplier.

Manatee's water supply infrastructure includes seven 1,200-foot-deep wells out east that pump water out of the Floridan Aquifer and the surface water from the 2,000-acre manmade Lake Manatee Reservoir. County voters approved tax money for the purchase of a large swath of the watershed to protect these precious resources -- some 20,500 acres.

What does Sarasota bring to the table in the way of a water supply? Some 31 wells ranging from 400 to 700 feet deep. More than half the county's water is purchased from Manatee.

As a regional water supplier, Manatee County should not be placed in a position where it would be shut out of the public policy approval process during the term of a Sarasota board appointee.

We urge the county's legislative delegation to fight this needless legislation when the Legislature opens the 2013 regular session on March 5. Pinellas,

Hillsborough and Polk counties also see their board influence diluted, so Manatee should expect allies in this power struggle.

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