By Andy Reid |South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Doubling the budget for South Florida water managers and potentially shelving some Everglades restoration projects are among the ways proposed to pay for the state’s bid to buyout U.S. Sugar.

The South Florida Water Management District on Thursday revealed a plan for a $2.9 billion agency budget — up from the $1.3 billion expected — that includes paying for U.S. Sugar’s 187,000 acres, mill, offices and other holdings.

The budget boost comes from adding in costs for the $1.75 billion deal proposed to move the sugar giant out of the way in a plan to reconnect Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.

“These are hard numbers to swallow, by us and the public,” district board member Charles Dauray said.

The district proposes taking on more debt to pay for the U.S. Sugar deal without increasing taxes.

The district’s governing board on Wednesday gave an initial endorsement to keeping property taxes about 62 cents per $1,000 of taxable value for most of its 16-county region. For a $150,000 home, factoring in a $50,000 homestead exemption, that would cost residents in Broward and Palm Beach counties $62.40 a year.

“We did it within our means,” district Executive Director Carol Ann Wehle said about the U.S. Sugar deal’s budget repercussions.

Doing so required “difficult decisions,” Wehle said. The preliminary budget proposal includes:

Continuing to suspend construction of a massive reservoir in western Palm Beach County. Since June, the district has been paying contractors $1.9 million a month to stand by while water managers decide whether to proceed. Taxpayers already have invested about $250 million in the 16,700-acre reservoir that was being built along U.S. 27.

Shrinking a much-anticipated reservoir and water treatment area east of Lake Okeechobee, planned to hold water that now gets drained to the coast with damaging environmental effects. What once was a 12,000-acre project would shrink to 8,000 acres.

Holding off on building a similar reservoir on the west side of the lake, calling on the federal government to take over construction.

As negotiations with U.S. Sugar continue, the district plans to spend the summer looking for ways to prioritize construction projects before giving final approval to a spending plan in September.

One of the biggest ticket items with a future that remains in doubt is the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir in western Palm Beach County. The district in June stopped construction on it, citing a lingering legal challenge over how the water would be used. The agency must decide whether the reservoir — with a price tag projected to hit $800 million — is needed in the new plan to use U.S. Sugar land to store, treat and move water to the Everglades.

The Natural Resources Defense Council filed the legal challenge over the reservoir, seeking guarantees that the water would be used for Everglades restoration. On Thursday, the district’s governing board passed a resolution stating that whatever happens with the U.S. Sugar deal, the agency “remains committed to restoring the Everglades” and that “the District will ensure that water will be identified for the natural system.”

The U.S. Sugar deal calls for closing on the purchase by Nov. 30.

The district’s proposed budget comes up for a vote again on Sept. 10, with a final decision scheduled for Sept. 23.

From Staff and Wire Reports

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