Economic indicators show signs of improvement, but lagging effects from the recession hit the West Coast Inland Navigation District hard this year.
The district provides grant funding and direction for navigable waterway projects in four counties: Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and Lee County. The Bay Island Park seawall replacement on Siesta Key and 10 other countywide projects in Sarasota County’s 2013-2017 Proposed Capital Improvement Plan, have been designated to use WCIND grants for funding this year, according to the 2013 fiscal year budget. And the district will collect about 3% of county property taxes this year.
But, Sarasota County is “walking a tightrope with no net,” according to Sarasota County Coastal Manager Laird Wreford during a Sept. 19 Coast Advisory Committee meeting. And county staff might have to rein in grant applications and change the types of WCIND funding requests to build back a fiscal buffer intended for unexpected waterway projects.
The special taxing entity’s annual revenues fell 38% from 2007 to $5.7 million in 2011, and it spent 11% more in 2011 compared with four years earlier, according to the Florida Department of Financial Services. The district filters additional revenues collected above grant spending into a County Navigation Improvement Fund (CNIF) for each county.
“Sarasota County staff have developed a tendency to use CNIF money as a primary source of funds for projects, instead of using the waterway development program,” said WCIND Executive Director Chuck Listowski.
The Sarasota County Commission requested the WCIND allow the county to lower its CNIF reserve minimum from $300,000 to $250,000 to fund all of the project applications submitted, which included operational requests such as new city of Sarasota police vessels. That particular grant expenditure is indicative of another trend moving the WCIND further from its original function in Sarasota County.
“Sarasota County is now in a situation it hasn’t been in many years,” Listowski said.
When the WCIND was founded in 1947, its core purpose was to aid member counties with capital improvements for waterways, such as seawall repairs or inlet dredging projects.
But, at last week’s meeting, Sarasota County asked for permission to spend 31.7% of the waterway development program funding for law enforcement.
“This year’s exercise is going to be more critical — more important — than it ever has been before,” Wreford said about the grant application process for the next fiscal year. Members of the Coastal Advisory Committee will have more influence on the district board’s decisions because of the CNIF issue and some political changes in Florida.
The first — and what one board member said was most worrisome — is a mandate Gov. Rick Scott signed in January advising the Office of Policy and Budget to review all 1,634 special districts to determine if they are efficient and transparent.
The WCIND board will soon implement an evaluation process for its executive director, said Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, the regional representative to the district.
Another issue that could draw negative comment from the Office of Policy and Budget is the absence of a definitive manual of board rules and procedures. During a meeting earlier this year, Philip Perrey, counsel to the district, introduced a document of policies drawn from 25 years of board minutes, but the board asked for a procedures manual.
Creating an official manual can create a rigid process that’s difficult to change if there are unintended consequences, he explained to the Coastal Advisory Committee during the Sept. 19 meeting.
But, if policies aren’t well-defined, they are open for interpretation, which makes deciding whether to fund a waterway project difficult.
“It’s a tight rope, there’s no doubt about it,” Wreford said.
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