SUBURBAN WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - More than 80 Tea Party activists from across the state converged in West Palm Beach on Wednesday to oppose Gov. Charlie Crist's proposed $536 million Everglades restoration land deal with U.S. Sugar Corp.
The group — some wearing T-shirts that said "Don't Tread On Me" and "Sorry Charlie" — targeted the South Florida Water Management District board meeting where officials were expected to discuss their property tax rate and how the land deal affects the agency's $1 billion budget.
The proposed land deal, two years in the making, calls for buying 73,000 acres from U.S. Sugar that could be used to build reservoirs and treatment areas to restore water flows to the Everglades.
The water management district leads Everglades restoration and the deal, orchestrated by Crist, calls for the district to buy the land. The district intends to borrow the money for the land deal and use the agency's property tax revenue to pay off the long-term debt.
Tea Party activists argued Wednesday that taxpayers can't afford a half billion-dollar land deal that they dubbed a "bailout" from Crist to U.S. Sugar.
"It's overpriced. … It's a payback," said Marianne Moran, one of the protest organizers. "We don't need it."
District Board Chairman Eric Buermann defended the still-pending deal as a way to acquire land vital to restoring the Everglades, which is also relied on to restock South Florida's drinking water supply.
"It is a bailout, but for the Everglades. … For the environment," Buermann said.
Environmental groups and other supporters call the blockbuster deal a historic opportunity to acquire former Everglades land drained through the decades to make way for agriculture.
Some land deal supporters blamed Crist's political opponents and U.S. Sugar rival Florida Crystals for fueling the Tea Party protest, which came complete with free bus transportation and boxed lunches.
Tea Party protest organizers said the protest was their idea. Some of the signs they waved before the start of Wednesday's board meeting read: "Property taxes aren't sweet," "No sweets for you Charlie," and "No bucks for muck."
They passed out sugar cookies with "End Charlie's Bailout" written in icing on top.
"This is a bad deal," said Everett Wilkinson, one of the event organizers. "There's no way they can pay for this without raising our taxes."
District officials have long maintained that they would not raise property tax rates to pay for the U.S. Sugar land deal.
The district's latest budget proposal calls for keeping the tax rate the same as it has been since 1998.
The district's nine-member board, appointed by the governor, on Thursday will be asked to approve a maximum tax rate for the budget year that begins in October. Final approval of the district's tax rate comes in September.
Crist in June 2008 first proposed spending $1.75 billion to acquire 180,000 acres and all of U.S. Sugar's facilities to make way for Everglades restoration. The souring economy led to the scaled-down 73,000-acre version, with a 10-year option to acquire another 107,000 acres.
The land deal still must overcome a challenge to the Florida Supreme Court. The district still has the option of backing out before the pending closing if the budget strain becomes too great.
Even though the district board is appointed by the governor, the board members will not just "rubber stamp anybody's idea," Buermann said.
"This is our water supply for South Florida," Buermann said. "The health of the Everglades is more than an environmental issue."
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