Florida Today: County commissioners break logjam so lagoon projects funded by sales tax can continue

Article Posted on February 27, 2019

By: Dave Berman, Florida Today

County commissioners have voted to break a logjam for approving projects funded by a special sales tax targeted for Indian River Lagoon restoration.

By a 4-0 vote, commissioners agreed to a compromise plan put forth by Vice Chair Bryan Lober to approve most of the updated 2019 spending plan for the half-percent sales tax.

However, how to spend some of the roughly $225 million initially designated for muck removal work remains undecided. Commissioners agreed to authorize up to $125 million for muck removal. But they set aside the other $100 million initially targeted for muck removal and related projects for further study — and possible reallocation to other types of projects.

Some commissioners contend that the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Project Plan for use of the revenue from the half-percent sales tax designates too much money for muck removal and not enough for infrastructure projects to prevent the discharge of sewage into the lagoon.

In all, the voter-approved sales tax — which is authorized for a 10-year period — is projected to collect a total of $486 million during those 10 years.

Two weeks ago, commissioners voted against approving the 2019 update to the plan, which they instead sent back to the advisory Save Our Indian River Lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee for additional study. Commissioners directed the oversight committee to reallocate some of the muck removal money for infrastructure projects, but didn't specify how much.

In subsequent meetings with county staff, Lober was told that delay in approving any of the plan could put other types of projects in limbo as well. Since there was no approved plan, matching funds from the state or other sources could be at risk.

Lober's proposal that commisioners approved Tuesday enables most of the plan to move forward, while continuing the study of how to reallocate some or all of the $100 million portion of the muck removal project funds.

It asks the oversight committee to "provide recommendations, in a timely manner, pertaining to the unallocated portion of the funds for County Commission evaluation and consideration."

At issue is disagreement among scientists and other experts as to what path is the best one to lead to the restoration of the lagoon, and how to balance paying for muck removal with paying for infrastructure improvements and other types of projects.

Lober said his proposal is "intended to get us past essentially a stalemate or a stagnation" while the oversight committee and commissioners hash out how much to spend on muck removal.

"The question is where that balance is," said Lober, who is the Brevard County Commission's representative on the five-county Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program's board of directors. "There's no single silver bullet" to solve the lagoon's environmental problems…

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