Some Treasure Coast residents said the Florida Inland Navigation District has too much power, virtually no oversight and wastes taxpayer money on what they call unnecessary dredging projects and cocktail parties that cater to wealthy boat owners.
And some are calling on Gov. Rick Scott to investigate the state agency and provide more oversight.
“I think there’s a lot of work to do in redesigning the laws on how that money is spent,” said FIND critic Gary Kaczenski in response to a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation into FIND. “We certainly want the governor to look at this issue.”
Bruce Barkett, who represents Indian River County on FIND’s board of commissioners, defended the district’s spending decisions, but conceded they may need to rethink plans to dredge a 3-mile stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway in northern Indian River County because it is not as shallow as once thought.
“I think that it’s important for us to stay ahead of the curve, but whether this is actually requiring dredging at this time, we’ll probably revisit,” Barkett said. “The fact of the matter is there is no funding.”
The Florida Inland Navigation District spends taxpayer money on dredging projects that are mainly the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, waterfront park projects and luxury accommodations for its monthly district commission meetings.
The night before each meeting, FIND holds “community outreach events” or cocktail parties where FIND officials dine on free appetizers and drink wine and mixed drinks provided at a cash bar. The meetings are rarely attended by citizens and can be difficult to locate. They’re mainly frequented by FIND officials, local government officials and representatives of the marine industries.
“I think these are just parties that are self-serving in that it literally is a free lunch or a free dinner with booze and wine,” said Port St. Lucie resident Bob Poller. “(FIND officials) get all the spiffs as if they were the client and the other guys were the salespeople selling a product, which they are doing. ‘Let’s continue the dredging.’”
Barkett said that although FIND officials might stay in luxury hotels, that doesn’t necessarily mean the agency is paying luxury prices.
“Some of the places where we have functions are in nice places, but we don’t pay a lot of money for the functions,” Barkett said. “And there might have been a couple that looked bad, but overall, for example, in my particular case, my functions have been at the Environmental Learning Center or at my home.
“If I can put on a function for 40 or more guests for $500 or $600 at a free venue and get attention paid to the Environmental Learning Center and environmental education, I’m really proud of that.
“And if anybody has a different opinion, well I respect their opinion, but I don’t agree.”
FIND’s primary role is to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain and manage the Intracoastal Waterway so boats safely travel in a navigation channel that extends roughly 400 miles. It goes through 12 counties from the southern Georgia border to Miami-Dade County.
Gail Kavanagh, the FIND commissioner representing St. Lucie County, said the organization is run economically and frugally.
“I am treasurer, and I check all of the checks as they’re sent out and sign most of them,” she said. “I have no qualms about how we spend money.”
Kavanagh said FIND’s social events are more expensive than others depending on what county they’re held in.
“It’s actually a real nice thing for us commissioners because we only see each other once a month,” she said. “It gives us a chance to socialize, but not talk business.”
Kavanagh said FIND probably spends about $800 on each social event held in St. Lucie County.
“Our socials are really not extravagant at all,” she said.
FIND Commissioner Don Cuozzo, who represents Martin County, referred questions Monday to FIND Executive Director David Roach. Roach could not be reached for comment.
St. Lucie County resident Ward Pearce said he lives next to one of FIND’s future dredged materials management facilities on Indian River Drive. He said he has no problem with the site or with the way the agency spends taxpayer money.
“FIND is the only state agency who has their financial house in order,” he said. “They have amassed a considerable sum using a pittance of taxation. Their functions seem extravagant, but these activities are an efficient method of public relations in that they impress only who they need to.”
He said FIND doesn’t waste money on frivolous things and he doesn’t see anything wrong with the social events.
“They have to stay friends with folks who have an influence on what they do,” he said.
The little-known state agency collects more than $20 million in property taxes statewide each year, has bank accounts totaling about $60 million and amassed net assets worth more than $166 million, FIND records show.
But the agency has managed to stay under the radar mainly because of its low tax rate of 3.45 cents per $1,000 of assessed property. Most taxpayers on the Treasure Coast are paying less than $10 a year to the organization.
“It’s not a significant amount on your tax bill, so a lot of people overlooked it, including myself,” Kaczenski said. “But, when you consider every taxpayer in Florida contributes to this, obviously, they collect a lot of money.”
Since 2005, FIND has spent more than $503,000 on travel and meeting expenses for commissioners and staff. FIND’s travel expenses have steadily increased over the last six years — except for budget year 2009-10 when expenses went down slightly from the previous year.
The governor appoints a FIND commissioner for each of the 12 counties on Florida’s east coast. FIND has one commission meeting in each county per year. The commissioners are unpaid volunteers.
Poller said he had never heard of the agency until he read news reports over the weekend.
“And I thought I was pretty smart in the stuff that’s going on,” he said. “They run these meetings with very little promotion intentionally so people don’t come out, so people don’t comment. So, this keeps going on and on and on. If Governor Scott continues to let this thing go on it’s really an abuse of the taxpayers as far as I can see.”
Other residents have concerns over FIND’s handling of storage sites for dredged material and how their local elected officials have little power to stop the agency.Kaczenski and several other members of the Concerned Taxpayers of Indian River County are fighting the construction of a large sediment processing facility on U.S. 1 near Sebastian. They have criticized some of the agency’s spending practices and dredging project priorities.
They have questioned why FIND is spending millions of dollars on a sediment facility and a dredging project they consider unnecessary because shoaling in the Intracoastal Waterway is far worse in other areas than it is in northern Indian River County, they said.
“The governor should know the relationships and reporting responsibilities among all the agencies that are involved in the development of major sites such as these,” said Sebastian resident Steve Kidder. “For example, national, state, and county environmental people need to be fully involved and accountable to the area citizens who are paying for it.”
Sebastian resident Frank Marshall said, “Nobody is controlling (FIND).
“You can’t fight these guys. They are too powerful. The governor’s office doesn’t think they control them. The commissioners don’t control them.”
Asked whether FIND would be discussing its spending practices at its January commission meeting in St. Johns County, Barkett said he didn’t set the agenda.
“I think it’ll be a topic of discussion,” he said.