December 14, 2008
If there's no deal by Tuesday, U.S. Sugar insists, the company's offer to sell its land to the South Florida Water Management District for $1.34 billion is off. That should be OK with taxpayers. The only way to negotiate a better deal is to stop this one.
proposed contract gives U.S. Sugar a price for the land that new appraisals say
may be $300 million too high because U.S. Sugar would get to continue farming
most of its 180,000 acres for at least seven years. That lease also threatens
to delay negotiations to bring in a necessary partner to
But U.S. Sugar has presented the district with a take-it-or-leave-it position. That position was worked out in negotiations led not by the water district - whose taxpayers in 16 counties would pay for the land - but by Michael Sole, Gov. Crist's secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.
For the public, six months after it was announced the deal remains hard to follow. But taxpayers and the water district board members who will vote on the deal can't consider it without considering the motives of the key players:
Gov. Crist. He wants an environmental grand slam to establish his national credentials. The buyout would please environmentalists, including Paul Tudor Jones, a wealthy contributor who persuaded Gov. Crist to pursue it. There's also an element of insider politics. The governor's former chief of staff and longtime aide, George Lemieux, left the governor's office this year to become chairman of the Gunster Yoakley law firm, which represents U.S. Sugar in negotiations with the water district.
The Lawrence Group. It is aiming the company's offer of $300 per share directly to U.S. Sugar stockholders. In an interview with The Post, Gaylon Lawrence Jr. promised to work with the water district to sell whatever land the state needs, even if that turned out to be 100,000 acres. The Lawrence Group has been trying to buy U.S. Sugar for three years, and Mr. Lawrence would not rule out legal action to assure fair consideration of his offer.
Clewiston. Residents of U.S. Sugar's hometown and other Glades communities argue that the sale would wipe out a large segment of the sugar industry, force the closing of U.S. Sugar's mill and eliminate 1,700 jobs, turning Clewiston into a ghost town. They prefer The Lawrence Group's offer because, they say, it would keep agriculture alive.
Environmentalists. They argue that the cost will look like a great investment
decades from now. The loss of 1,700 jobs pales next to the failure to meet
South Florida's water needs, both for the
far as restoring the
Tuesday's arbitrary deadline is itself a deal-breaker. Is U.S. Sugar really prepared to shun the water district, with its billion-dollar financing capability, if the board defers? Or is the company afraid that more time means more scrutiny of U.S. Sugar's finances, which could drive down the price?
It's all become too much like a poker game with public money. To get the best deal for the public, the governing board has to call U.S. Sugar's bluff.