TC Palm

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Eve Samples: New water district chief blasts lack of ''fiscal discipline'' at agency

By Eve Samples

Hundreds of jobs have disappeared from its payroll and its budget is half of what it was five years ago — but there's still fat to trim at the South Florida Water Management District, if you ask the agency's new director.

To prove this point, Blake Guillory tells a story about a car.

One of the 500 cars in the district's fleet has a singular purpose at the agency's West Palm Beach headquarters: It sits in a parking lot, where a guard occasionally drives it to open and close a security gate.

''That means somebody's not getting it,'' said Guillory, who became the district's executive director in September and makes $165,000 a year.

Guillory earned a reputation for cleaning house during his previous tenure at the Southwest Florida Water Management District — and the former private-sector consultant appears intent on shaking things up in his new gig, too.

During a visit last week with Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers' Editorial Board, Guillory talked about ''changing culture'' at the 16-county South Florida Water Management District, which plays a leading role in Everglades restoration.

So far, that has meant nitpicking the district's administrative budget and encouraging managers to find more savings — an exercise Guillory claims will let the district pump more money into restoration and flood-control work.

''We're just going through the process of what's critical and what's not,'' he said.
The district already is planning its 2015 fiscal year budget. It is projected to be $642 million, down from $1.5 billion in 2010, thanks in large part to cuts imposed by Gov. Rick Scott.

After taking office in 2011, Scott pushed for reductions at all five of the state's water districts, a move that drew criticism from some environmental advocates.

Guillory reports to nine Scott appointees who make up the district's Governing Board, and he is following through on what the governor started.

With about 100 administrative staffers out of almost 1,600 total, Guillory called the district ''top heavy.''

Guillory cited the fact that 97 workers left the South Florida Water Management District last year as part of natural attrition — yet every single one of those positions was filled.

''We had no fiscal discipline inside the district,'' he said.

In the past, performance at the South Florida Water Management District has been measured by ''burn rate,'' he believes.

''Because we didn't want it taken away from us, so let's spend it,'' Guillory said.

He plans to change that.

We can expect Guillory to further shrink the payroll. He also is considering making employees pay more for health insurance.

Guillory, who replaced Martin County resident and environmental consultant Melissa Meeker, is laser focused on dollars and cents. The tax rate for most residents in the 16-county district — which stretches from Orlando to the Keys — is $41.10 per $100,000 of property value. Most of that money goes toward restoration work and operations including flood control.

But there's a more important metric for those of us who live in Martin and St. Lucie counties: the quality of water in our rivers.

During our editorial board meeting, Guillory voiced a couple of assumptions about our waterways that weren't quite true.

First, he indicated this year's damaging releases into the St. Lucie River were a relatively new phenomenon. He linked them to the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, failing to acknowledge we've had this problem for almost a century.

Second, Guillory wrongly assumed the St. Lucie River sometimes needs water from Lake Okeechobee during drought years. That might be true on the West Coast, but it's not the case here.

As the new head of a territory that includes 7.9 million residents, Guillory has a steep learning curve.

A few months into his tenure, he has proved he can cut spending.

Time will tell whether he also can deliver on solutions for the St. Lucie River, the Indian River Lagoon and the larger Everglades system.

Eve Samples is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers.