Mar 19, 2010

Crist’s big promises, no cash sour Everglades deal

It's hard to imagine a more disastrous finale to Gov. Charlie Crist's reign as governor than the implosion of a decades-long effort to put the Everglades back together again.

The great swamp and the golden governor may well go down together.

A lot of people are scrambling to prevent that.

But money is money. And there isn't enough of it to pay for Crist's plan to begin buying out one of the Everglades' biggest polluters: U.S. Sugar Corp.

It seems that, once again, Charlie has promised more than he can deliver.

This time, even The New York Times has blown the whistle on him. It weighed in with one of its opus investigations last week, making the case that the Everglades deal is a huge corporate bailout for U.S. Sugar.

I've been saying that for a while now, but without all the ink, internal e-mails, 60 interviews, long sentences and national clout of the Times.

This is a true fiasco. The old plan to save the Everglades — the one that was forever in the making and finally got under way — was put on hold for Charlie's plan. This pulled the plug on a massive reservoir that was halted in mid-construction after $280 million was spent on it.

If the state had to do a big oopsie and restart construction, that would add millions to the cost and years to the completion date.

The Everglades deal has fallen apart with almost the same speed of Crist's Senate campaign. Less than two years ago, Crist announced plans to buy out all of U.S. Sugar's 290 square miles for $1.7 billion. But then someone counted the money and whittled the deal down.

Then someone counted the money again and whittled it down again — this time to $536 million for 114 square miles. The rest would be bought in the future, apparently in a galaxy far, far away.

Now, darn it, someone counted the money yet again, and the South Florida Water Management District, which oversee the Glades, can't even afford the scaled-down version of the scaled-down version.

It's hard to borrow a half-billion dollars when your consultant says it would put you more than $100 million in the red by 2012.

Time was when Wall Street would have given me a half-billion on my home-equity loan to buy swampland. No more. To raise such loot now, the water district would have to gut its budget and shell out payday-loan interest rates. Even at that, a tax increase would be inevitable.

I might be more motivated to plow ahead under better circumstances. But these circumstances stink.

U.S. Sugar is in dismal financial shape, according to stories in the Miami Herald. Costs are up. Profits are down. Same old story.

A big drag is the company's citrus operations. It owns three groves covering about 32,000 acres.

An appraisal notes that the largest grove — about 17,700 acres — is in "relatively poor condition" and "is not currently producing adequate income to cover caretaking and other costs of operation."

It has been hit hard by a deadly citrus-tree disease called greening. The outbreak increased production costs up to 50 percent when the price of fruit juice was going down.

The next-biggest grove, covering 9,441 acres, has been so ravaged by disease and hurricanes that only 55 percent of the land available for citrus is being used.

These groves are far-flung and in the hinterlands, diminishing their value.

Why is the district buying them? Because U.S. Sugar demanded it, and the Governor's Office, under intense political pressure to salvage a deal, agreed.

U.S. Sugar not only dumps its worst-performing assets, but it also gets top dollar for them. Meanwhile, it holds on to most of the rich, sugar-producing lands the district does need for restoration.

The state can come for them later, if it ever scrapes up the cash. Again, never say never, but …

You only get this kind of deal when you're dealing with the government.

The response of my green friends is predictable.

"Price should not get in the way of this historic opportunity," said Eric Draper of the Florida Audubon Society.

What does a rip-off matter in the grand scheme of saving the Everglades? In 50 years, will anyone remember we paid a princely sum for diseased farmland?

It is a legitimate argument, but one that held greater sway when we had enough money that price didn't matter. Now it does — tremendously so.

Barring another torrent of ObamaBucks, I don't see how this deal gets done. That means the state must do what it has never had the courage to do: decide what land is necessary for the Everglades. And condemn it as money becomes available.

The above editorial from the Orlando Sentinel 3-15-10
Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or

No comments:

Post a Comment