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Panhandle sewer projects are among TaxWatch's 2022 'Budget Turkeys'

Three men stand in front of a lectern with a sign that reads "Florida TaxWatch on a wall behind them.
Valerie Crowder
/
WFSU Public Media
Florida TaxWatch Executive Vice President Tony Carvajal speaks at a press conference announcing the organization's 2022 Budget Turkey Watch Report in Tallahassee on Thursday, April 28, 2022.

A state government watchdog group is urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto several local projects in communities across the Panhandle that were included in the legislature's budget.

Florida TaxWatch influences the governor’s veto pen every year with its annual Budget Turkey Watch Report. This year the group is recommending DeSantis slash 166 local projects totaling $281million.

Last year, DeSantis cut about $54 million in funding for local projects. There was nearly three times that much funding identified last year on the turkey watch report.

Funding for local museums, parks, sports complexes and sewer system projects has skyrocketed in this year’s budget.

“There’s so much more spending is because there’s so much more money," said Florida Tax Watch Executive Vice President Tony Carvajal. "Some of it is because the state has been earning more. Some of it is federal dollars. Some of it is allocations that we didn’t spend in prior years.”

The legislature passed a roughly $112 billion budget. That’s about 10% higher than the previous year. TaxWatch’s analysis shows the legislature proposed spending more on local projects this year than the previous five years combined. Much of that didn’t end up on the turkey list. Still, Carvajal says those projects should still get carefully review.

“This is not an evaluation of the worthiness of a project. It’s very likely that we’ll actually work with the governor on what not to veto as much as what to pass. But if it didn’t follow the process, we call them out as ‘turkeys.’”

Those "turkeys" include several sewer projects in the Panhandle — totaling more than $21 million. In Bay County, there were several identified as veto-ready, including a $10 million project that would jump start work on a plan to stop dumping treated sewage water into St. Andrew Bay.

“Traditionally, our effluent would go into the bay," said Keith Bryant, the county's chief infrastructure officer. "This is treated water. It’s of high quality.”

Every day, about 3.5 million gallons of wastewater from five towns, unincorporated parts of the county and Tyndall Air Force Base gets treated and dumped into the bay. That's set to change, he said.

“What the county and cities will do is apply this water as reuse," he said. “We’ll water medians, parks and such with this water."

Local utilities are required to stop dumping wastewater into the state’s rivers, lakes, streams and coastal waters by 2032. Bryant says the funding from the state will help the county comply with the new law. Without it, customer rates could go up.

“This effluent has to go out of the state waters and has to go somewhere. It’s a tremendous cost to the community," he said. "This is a big cost we’re going to have to fund, and if this doesn’t pass, it has the potential to affect rates.”

The wastewater project was among four others in Bay County, which is still recovering from Hurricane Michael.

They include:

  • $10 million water reuse design, engineering and phase I of construction for
  • $1.67 million for an expansion at the town's wastewater treatment facility
  • $3 million Panama City Beach Laguna Beach Septic to Sewer Program
  • $3.5 million Panama City Kings Bayou Sewer and Water system expansion

The legislature approved $1.6 million for Lynn Haven to expand its wastewater treatment facility. Mayor Jesse Nelson says the state funding is vital.
“It’s certainly a lifeline for us, especially still being in recovery mode from Hurricane Michael," Nelson said. "Having the state funds that we received allows us to use our tax funds better to accomplish other projects."

Water projects in rural Jackson and Washington Counties were also identified as budget turkeys this year. Both counties are categorized among the state's "fiscally constrained." In Washington County, two wastewater projects totaling just over $2 million were added to the turkey list. In Jackson County, $990,000 was allocated for a wastewater upgrades on Market Street in Marianna.

TaxWatch is recommending the governor veto about $100 million appropriated for those projects. Senior Vice President of Research Kurt Wenner says communities should compete for those dollars. "The state has a big grant program for doing that," Wenner said. " We think that all of these should’ve gone through that.”

Other projects in the Panhandle

Water projects weren’t the only ones that TaxWatch suggested the governor veto.

About $1.1 million approved for new public buildings in rural, cash-strapped Holmes County was flagged. Jennifer Green is a consultant who lobbies for the county.

“It’s unfortunate that something like this — and again in a county that desperately needs funding — gets put on a turkey list.”

The project includes a new agriculture center, extension office and public safety building for the county sheriff's office. The county had been working with lawmakers for the last few years on the project, Green said.

“I don’t think there’s any question that they wanted to bring this home for Holmes County. If tax-watch thinks they’re turkeys, well 'gobble, gobble.'”