In a messy summer on Miami beaches, county’s budget faces possible seaweed ‘crisis’

Sargassum has made a return on parts of Miami Beach and residents and city officials are looking for solutions to rid their beaches of the pesky seaweed. Sargassum often collects trash, pesky critters and emits a strong odor.

Miami’s messy seaweed summer soiled the county’s budget talks on Thursday as passage of the plan steered into growing worries about deposits of sargassum on Miami Beach and beyond.

Seaweed got the most attention from county commissioners in discussions on Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed $8.9 billion budget for Miami-Dade in 2020. The spending plan, which keeps most tax rates flat, includes an extra $522,000 to boost the county’s cleanup crews on the coast, a modest figure for a response that the Gimenez administration says it is still developing.

“We’ve been discussing the issue of seaweed, and maybe putting some funds in so we hit the hot spots,” Gimenez told commissioners at a morning meeting where the board unanimously approved the mayor’s cap on most existing tax rates ahead of September’s budget votes. “There are some places where it’s really bad. It’s not like we can pick up the seaweed, and it’s gone. We’re going to keep getting seaweed every day.”

Sargassum has made a return on parts of Miami Beach and residents and city officials are looking for solutions to rid their beaches of the pesky seaweed. Sargassum often collects trash, pesky critters and emits a strong odor. A long line of the seaweed could be seen on the beach and in the water near the 29th Street entrance of Miami Beach, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Emily Michot EMICHOT@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Miami-Dade is just one front in a larger seaweed battle ensnaring Florida and other parts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico during a cycle of increased sargassum drifting over the last several years. This summer brought more of the brown, reedy mats of sea grass to Miami Beach and beyond, putting pressure on the county’s cleanup crews to do more.

“I think it could become a real crisis,” said Commissioner Eileen Higgins, whose district includes parts of Miami Beach. “Some days are really bad. Some days are not so bad.”

While hydrogen sulfide gas that comes from sargassum can smell like rotten eggs and cause some respiratory issues, seaweed isn’t considered as much of a public health concern as last year’s red tide outbreaks across Florida. But for beachgoing residents and tourists, a primary driver of Miami-Dade’s hospitality industry, seaweed-covered sand is a nuisance and possibly a reason to vacation elsewhere.

“It can grow to a potential red tide,” Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a potential 2020 mayoral candidate, said of the seaweed’s risk to tourism. “People plan their vacations. If they’re hearing there’s a problem, they can decide to go somewhere else.”

Higgins said Miami-Dade and Miami Beach are pressing the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis to allow the county to obtain a season-long permit for seaweed cleanup, rather than weekly licenses to do the work. She also said planned beach renourishment efforts could redesign jetties to make them less likely to trap sargassum flowing by on sea currents.

Gimenez and commissioners can agree to a larger seaweed-fighting plan ahead of the budget’s scheduled final approval on Sept. 19.

Thursday’s vote set a cap on the five tax rates Miami-Dade charges property owners in various parts of the county.

Four of the rates, including the countywide property tax that funds more than $1.3 billion in general services, remain flat in the Gimenez plan. A fifth, a countywide tax to pay back voter-authorized debt, increases by $8 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value. The debt tax is small enough that it causes the combined tax rate from the five levies to increase less than 1 percent for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

While tax rates remain flat, most property owners will see a slightly higher tax bill thanks to rising property values.

The July vote usually sets tax rates for the year, leaving commissioners to press Gimenez for money in various spending categories. The rates approved Thursday are used to calculate estimated tax bills that go out to property owners in August. Commissioners are able to set a lower tax rate after July, but can’t increase it without an expensive notice to all property owners that is considered all but impossible.

The current budget doubles the number of cleanup crews the county will have working beaches full time. The additional two crews employ about a dozen people.

Gimenez said logistical challenges mean money alone can’t fix the sargassum issue. With seaweed arriving each day, Miami-Dade crews can’t remove it without the kind of heavy machinery that “will turn your beaches into a construction zone.”

“We have to find a way to clean as much as we can,” he said, “without disrupting the enjoyment of the beach. Hopefully this bloom will dissipate and we won’t have to deal with this problem. But there are huge amounts of seaweed out in the ocean right now, and it will find its way here.”

See Miami Herald article . . .