Vehicles drive on Las Olas Boulevard through water from the high tides. (Mike Stocker / Sun Sentinel / So / South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

South Florida mayors: Raise taxes to fight sea-level rise

Mayors of three South Florida counties have sent an unusual request to the agency responsible for keeping communities from flooding: Please raise our taxes.

Why would they ask another government agency to reach deeper into their residents’ pockets? Sea level rise.

A letter from the mayors of Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties asks the South Florida Water Management District to maintain its current property tax rate, which would increase taxes collected because of rising property values. They say the extra money could pay for flood-control improvements to address sea-level rise and other effects of climate change. They cite a report by the district’s own staff that upwards of $30-70 million per year was needed to fix the canals, gates and pumps that move water to the ocean, as higher sea levels make it more difficult for the system to function.

“Without these investments, the regional flood control system will struggle to keep up with rapidly changing conditions, including rising sea levels, storm surge, and more intense rainfall,” wrote Broward County Mayor Mark Bogen, Monroe County Mayor Sylvia Murphy and Palm Beach County Mayor Mack Bernard. “We cannot emphasize enough how much the economy of our region and the safety of our residents depends on a fully functional regional water management system.”

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The district, which is considering a proposed budget of $941.9 million for flood-control, water supply and the restoration of the Everglades, refused and said it would proceed with a planned rate cut. In a letter to the mayors, Chauncey Goss, the district’s chairman, noted that the district expected to receive record state funding and could meet its flood-control obligations without a tax hike.

“We agree that assessing and addressing the impacts of climate change, especially sea level rise, on the District’s infrastructure is a priority for the District and citizens of South Florida,” he wrote. “…This year, the Governing Board felt there was no need to raise taxes on South Florida families and businesses when all of our mission-critical functions could be met with current funding from local, state, and federal sources.”

The district’s proposed budget calls for holding taxes steady. The tax rate would actually decline slightly to account for a rise in property values, preventing the typical homeowner from paying more. The rate will fall from 29.36 cents to 27.95 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. For the owner of a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption and no increase in taxable value, the total tax bill from the district would fall from $29.36 to $27.95.

Budget hearings are scheduled for Sept. 12 and Sept. 24.

Sea levels have been rising for more than a century because of melting glaciers and the expansion of water as it warms. In the past few years, the rate has been about four millimeters a year or an inch every eight years, as measured by tide gauges and satellites.

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In coastal South Florida, the higher sea levels have led to more severe sunny-day flooding, when seasonal high tides bring seawater into low-lying neighborhoods along the ocean. They have let to a greater threat of storm surges in hurricanes. And they threaten to disrupt the system of canals and control structures that carries water from neighborhoods to the ocean, keeping streets dry.

The water management district’s canals use control gates that can be raised during storms to allow water to flow to the ocean. But as the sea level has risen, the water on the ocean side of these gates has risen too. As this difference in water level diminishes, it will become more difficult to move water to the ocean. Most vulnerable are Miami-Dade, Broward and Collier counties.

“The canal stages that are maintained by the water management district ultimately determine whether the basins can discharge into them,” said Jennifer Jurado, Broward County's director of environmental planning and community resilience. “The canals can only receive so much water so you need to be able to move that water. There may be needs for dredging the canals. It might include widening the canals. It would likely include the installation of pumps in certain areas.”

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A June 13 presentation to the water management district’s board said adapting the flood-protection system to higher sea levels would cost about $550 million over the next 10 years. The mayors of the three counties said the district needed to treat this issue as an priority and said a modest increase in taxes would cost homeowners a few dollars while giving the district the money it needed to address an urgent problem more quickly.

“As county mayors, we understand the conflicting pressures to keep tax rates low while maintaining or improving services,” they wrote. “Given that previous Governing Boards have cut the District's tax rate every year for the past eight years, we believe the District has amply demonstrated its fiscal responsibility and can now persuasively argue that additional funds are needed to pay for critical investments.”

Missing from the list of signatories was Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

The district’s proposed budget contains $2.4 million to upgrade the system. This is close to the $2.7 million suggested for the first year of planning in the June presentation. But the budget also contains several million dollars more for various other programs to address sea-level rise and coastal flooding, spokesman Randy Smith said. So the total for addressing sea-level rise is $11 million, he said.

The water management district, which serves 16 counties, operates under a board appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. During his first weeks in office, DeSantis asked for the resignation of the previous board, which critics had considered to be too accommodating to the sugar industry and other business interests.

DeSantis has won praise from environmentalists for taking climate change and sea-level rise more seriously than his predecessor, Rick Scott. DeSantis created new high-level offices on science and climate change within the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and has said the state must make dealing with sea-level rise a priority.

See Sun Sentinel article . . .