by LISA MACNEIL
At the May 14, 2019 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) regular meeting, the board members voted 5-0 in favor of drafting a letter to notify the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority (WRWSA) of their continued participation, while reviewing of whether or not the county will continue to be a member of the four-county independent water authority.
The matter was brought up at the end of the April 23, 2019 BOCC meeting during Commissioner’s Comments, where Commissioner Steve Champion said, “The more I go to (the WRWSA meetings)… I believe it’s a waste of taxpayer funds. It’s another layer of government. Of all the boards I’m a part of, I feel like I just waste time.” Champion added that participation in the inter-local organization costs Hernando County $30,000 annually. WSWSA’s budget is approximately $1-million, funded by participating counties.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes agreed with Champion’s assessments, adding that those are the reasons he withdrew from the committee as a county representative. Dukes also voiced concern over leadership issues within the authority.
“We already have SWFWMD, why do we need this other organization?” According to Champion, Citrus County is considering ending their participation in the WRWSA, and if Hernando pulls out as well, it could disband the organization.
Champion ended his comments by telling the other commissioners that if the board’s decision was to remain a part of WRWSA, then he would withdraw as Hernando County’s representative.
Later in the meeting, Commissioners John Mitten and John Allocco stated that the board should continue participation for now. “At this point, I’m not in favor of leaving the authority, I think there are way too many questions right now.” Allocco went on to say that the board should make sure that WRWSA stays on its mission, and that the funding with “seed money” for new water supplies by the authority is a crucial benefit.
Continuation in participation in the WRWSA was first discussed at the meeting held September 11, 2018, in response to the Board’s request for a legal opinion as to whether Hernando County must participate in the WRWSA. The county’s legal department determined that participation is not mandatory, however, should the board decide to end their interlocal agreement with Citrus, Marion and Sumter counties, a repeal of the ordinance (77-7) that outlines the county’s participation would be necessary.
Following the discussion on September 11, 2018,the Board of County Commissioners approved two Funding Agreements with the WRWSA, that are still in progress. The first, a Fiscal Year (FY) 2018-2019 Project Grant Agreement for Local Government Water Conservation Funding Assistance Program was approved by a 4-0 vote. This Agreement requires completion of the Project on or before September 30, 2019. Although the Agreement expires on that date, the County is required to submit an audit and attestation relating to compliance with the contract provisions no later than September 30, 2020.
The second is a Funding Agreement with WRWSA for Regional Irrigation Evaluation Program Phase 5 was approved by a 5-0 vote. This Agreement will remain in effect through May 31, 2022, or upon satisfactory completion of the Project and reimbursement to the WRWSA.
Since this Agreement does not contain a termination clause, the status of the Project and payment of funds would need to be negotiated between the parties if Hernando County decides to withdraw from the WRWSA prior to the end of the contract period.
Brian Armstrong, Executive Director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), addressed the board in favor of the WRWSA. Armstrong defined the interests and scope of the WRWSA, which also includes rehabilitation and conservation efforts, most notably, the Weeki Wachee Spring System.
According to Armstrong, Florida legislature requires that SWFWMD work with a water supply authority when planning, and not individual governments, municipalities and counties. Not a simple relationship, Armstrong said, “What we’ve learned from … every water supply authority that (SWFWMD) has helped develop is that an area will run out of water, and will look elsewhere for it.”
Armstrong reports that bringing a new water supply online takes about 8 years, including permitting, planning and building. The WRWSA provides bargaining power when water issues are taken to the state. “You have a much bigger voice, and more legislators on your side.” Other benefits include environmental benefits and the development of water supplies, and equitable distribution of water.
Armstrong cautioned the board on the aspect of funding. “If you need to develop an alternative water supply, and you want half of that funding to come from the district, you must be a member of the water supply authority. We don’t fund potable alternative supplies through municipalities or counties. So if you need (alternative water supplies) and you’re not part of (a water supply authority), you’re not going to get water management district money.”
The funding Armstrong reported is significant. Funding for a Peace River project was stated at $130-million.