A pair of Treasure Coast state lawmakers contend that the Florida Inland Navigation District — and other special taxing entities — would be held more accountable if voters periodically decided if those districts should keep existing.
And one of them — Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart — would favor giving local governments more say when FIND wants to build storage sites for the sediment it removes from the Intracoastal Waterway’s depths.
Negron and Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, both agreed residents who pay into special districts should get to vote every few years whether those entities should keep getting their tax dollars. Or at least, districts should be discontinued, or should “sunset,” if they’re not renewed by the Legislature over a certain time period, Negron and Snyder agreed.
Snyder said he spoke with a representative at the state Auditor General’s office, who said the office only audits districts like FIND for proper bookkeeping, not appropriateness of spending.
“There’s no legislative oversight,” Snyder said. “Having them schedule sunsets or have voter referendums, one of those two is the policy that I would support. That would add the necessary oversight.”
FIND Executive Director David Roach has said the agency welcomes the legislature and Gov. Rick Scott’s scrutiny.
FIND is the state partner of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in dredging and maintaining the Intracoastal, and owns plots of land up and down Florida’s east coast where it stores sediment dredged from the Intracoastal. The agency also hands out grants for various projects promoting access to the Intracoastal — piers, riverwalks and the like — and pays for outreach events along the coast before its commission’s monthly meetings.
Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, cautioned against quick across-the-board changes to districts like FIND, an agency she praised for its economic and recreational contributions for taxpayers. She said each district should be looked at case by case, which Scott has proposed to do during the upcoming session.
“We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water,” Harrell said. “If there are things going on in FIND that are inappropriate, let’s look at them, and make sure we make whatever changes are necessary. But I certainly would not have a blanket elimination of them at this point.”
The agency has spent more than $203,000 on travel and meeting expenses over the last two years, sending its 12 commissioners to meetings from Jacksonville to Miami. Commissioners also have traveled to Tallahassee and Washington for lobbying.
Roach said the organization books hotel rooms at $121 a night on average, but some beachfront and Washington reservations cost $250 to $450 a night, agency records show.
“That’s out of line with reasonable business travel,” Negron said.
A group of Indian River County residents is also concerned over a nearby Intracoastal dredging project and a sediment storage and processing facility off U.S. 1 in Sebastian. The $1.6 million dredging is expected to start in late 2012, or in 2013, depending if the federal government helps pay for it, Roach said.
The Concerned Taxpayers of Indian River County members fear the sediment facility will smell, hurt property values and threaten public safety if a major storm breaks the dike and sediment pours out. So they’re asking state lawmakers to give county commissions more say about whether FIND can start building sediment facilities in their backyard.
Negron said he supports more local power over those projects. But his focus is on moving more special districts toward renewal by voter referendum.
“Just as citizens of a county have a to get permission from a government to construct in the county, a special taxing district shouldn’t have carte blanche to do any project it wants inside the boundary of a county,” Negron said.
Rep. Debbie Mayfield, the Vero Beach Republican representing the Sebastian area that hosts the dredged material storage site, cautioned FIND to be careful in its spending, but didn’t go into any specifics.
“FIND, just like every other special district, should be held accountable for how they spend taxpayer money,” Mayfield said. “I remain committed to safeguarding public dollars and ensuring that all governmental entities are properly fulfilling their core missions. As FIND carries out its dredging responsibilities to ensure that our waterways remain safe and navigable, they need to do so without unduly burdening citizens in the process.”
Roach has defended the agency’s spending. He points out the district spends a small percentage of its budget on administrative costs and travel expenses.
Because of continued federal budget woes, FIND also has paid for more than $69 million in dredging duties since 1997 that are the Army Corps’ full responsibility, FIND documents show. But Negron said he doesn’t fault the agency for doing what is “part of their core mission.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, said it’s a local decision whether or not to pick up the slack for those projects, “given the reality of the current situation” with federal funding issues.
But U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, stressed that it’s ultimately the Corps’ job.
“Congressman Rooney believes the Army Corps of Engineers has a responsibility to fund and complete waterway projects under its jurisdiction,” Rooney spokesman Michael Mahaffey said. “The decisions regarding funding are made solely by the Army Corps of Engineers, and Congress cannot direct the Corps to fund specific projects under new rules prohibiting earmarks.”