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LEESBURG — A bill that would change the way the Lake County Water Authority operates is making its way through the Florida Legislature.
House Bill 1105, sponsored by Rep. Keith Truenow, R-Tavares, cleared its last committee Tuesday, and is now clear for a vote on the House floor. It would need Senate approval, too, before going to the governor's desk for a signature.
The bill proposes changing the water authority from an independent district to a dependent district, moving operations to the Lake County Commission.
But even if it does pass in the legislature, the measure needs support from the commission, which did not pitch the idea to Truenow and has so far stayed neutral on it.
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Truenow, who did not return multiple requests for comment from the Daily Commercial, said in committee meetings that the bill is intended to eliminate taxing duplications, streamline services and "provide better oversight."
But some of his colleagues, who mentioned they received emails from Lake Countians with concerns about this proposal, took issue with the biggest tenet of the bill: taking an elected board and making it an appointed board without voter approval.
The Lake County Water Authority was established by the legislature in 1953. Its purposes, as outlined by statute, are:
It's a local agency dedicated to improving the quality of the county's freshwater resources.
It also provides the community with recreational facilities and environmental education. Notably, the agency owns and operates Hickory Point Park, a 68-acre multi-use facility on State Road 19 adjacent to Little Lake Harris.
The water authority is governed by a seven-member board of trustees that is elected through a countywide ballot. These members serve four-year terms.
The agency has its own budget and sets its own millage rate, or tax rate, that can't exceed 0.5 mills. The board has decreased the tax rate every year since 2003.
For the 2021-22 fiscal year, the board approved an $18 million budget and a rolled back millage rate, which qualifies as a tax cut for residents. Because property values have increased, the rolled back rate brings in the same amount of money as the previous year but charges taxpayers less.
The rate adopted was 0.3229 mills — about 32 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. So on a home worth $200,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption, the bill for the water authority would be around $56.
No one from the public spoke on the millage rate or budget, which were adopted unanimously.
House Bill 1105's main purpose it to turn the water authority from an independent district to a dependent one governed not by an elected board of seven members, but an appointed board of five.
Under the proposal, voters would have less power. The Lake County Commission, an elected board, would choose board members. And the water authority's budget and millage rate would then have to be approved by the commission.
The bill also renames the LCWA to the “Lake County Water District” and "removes the Board’s authority to operate passive parks," according to the most recent House bill analysis.
As for where the proposal came from, Truenow did not respond to requests for comment.
In the House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday, he told his colleagues that the Lake County legislative delegation, comprised of two state senators and three state representatives, unanimously agreed to support the measure.
The LCWA board is against it, and lobbyist Chris Lyon has represented the board in committee meetings.
"We have seen no great public outcry for this conversion from an elected board to an appointed board," he told the House State Affairs Committee.
The county didn't push for it either, officials told the Commercial.
“I don’t know exactly what led up to the bill other than I know that he’s talked about reducing those duplications of services and making the system more efficient," county commission Chairman Sean Parks said.
In defense of his bill in the House, Truenow explained that the St. Johns Water Management District, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Lake County government already are charged with maintaining water quality and public lands. Therefore, he argued, a separate taxing agency isn't necessary.
St. Johns "is an environmental regulatory agency of the state of Florida focused on water quality, water supply, flood protection and natural resources," in 18 Florida counties.
And like the water authority, the county also operates parks and owns and manages land.
The county commission has not taken a stance on Truenow's bill. In discussions, however, commissioners said they would be open to learning more about potential duplications.
“Perhaps — and we don’t know yet — but perhaps there could be some efficiencies if those were managed by one entity instead of two different entities," Parks told the Commercial.
It's true that Lake County is unique in that it has its own locally focused board — not every other county one.
Still, the LCWA insists there's no duplication, but instead "unification."
"The Water Authority has advanced projects that would otherwise be neglected due to lack of resources or local interest," a document on the LCWA website says. "...The LCWA protects local interests through maintaining a vigilant focus on the activities within and adjacent to Lake County which may affect the water resources of Lake County."
In committee meetings, some of Truenow's fellow lawmakers applauded him for the measure.
"A vote up for this bill is a vote for efficiency in government," Rep Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, said in a House Ways & Means Committee meeting.
"This is a layer of bureaucracy we don't need out there," said Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City, in the same meeting.
Others, however, took issue with voters' power being diminished.
"You’re taking a group of elected people, sounds like you’re terminating them, and appointing a group by the Board of County Commissioners," Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, said during the House State Affairs Committee meeting Tuesday. "Did I say that correctly?”
“Yes,” Truenow replied.
Hinson audibly gasped.
"That just stunned me,” she said “Have the local residents had their say through some kind of election about what you’re about to do here in Tallahassee?”
“No,” Truenow answered.
“Wow," Hinson said.
During debate, Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, encouraged his colleagues to vote "no on this very bad bill."
"I’m against this bill and I know that other members of the committee were surprised and shook by your answers," he said. "I suspect many more are shook. What the bill does is that it is a hostile takeover of a local water board. They’re elected. They’re all elected and this bill makes them all appointed without even asking the voters for clearance or approval before doing it.
"We’re firing all those elected officials and the response that we were given as to why — 'Well, the legislature created the district in 1953, so you know we’re going to end it.' So what the legislature giveth, the legislature taketh away."
Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, urged members of the House Affairs Committee to pass the bill, as it's a local issue.
"If the locals didn’t like their local representatives or senators they would pick new ones and clearly they like them because they continue to re-elect them," he said. "I say move this bill forward to the floor. I intend to support it.”
In the end, the bill passed all three of its committees favorably.
The water authority's legal counsel, Lewis, Longman and Walker, wrote in a brief that the proposed bill does not follow statutory requirements to dissolve an independent taxing district.
For the legislature to do that, "the active independent special district must be approved by a majority of the resident electors of the district or, for districts in which a majority of governing body members are elected by landowners, a majority of the landowners voting in the same manner by which the independent special district’s governing body is elected," statue says.
In other words, the legal firm is arguing, the dissolution itself needs to be approved by voters.
"These changes do not amend the Authority, but in fact dissolve the existing independent special district, and forms a new dependent district," the brief says. "However, it attempts to accomplish this without observing the statutory requirements for doing so."
In committee meetings, Truenow said he did consider a referendum, but since the legislature created the board, it can dissolve it, too.
In a bill analysis, under the question "Referendum(s) required?" the "no" box is checked.
Lake County Attorney Melanie Marsh advised the board in September that, per state statute, there should be a referendum.
Going off of her advice, Parks said he supports taking it to the voters.
"I think the voters should decide whether that would be a board that would sort of come underneath the Lake County Commission," he said.
The bill could soon go up for a vote on the House floor.
If it passes in the House, it will go the Senate for approval. If the Senate approves it, it goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis for a signature.
Should DeSantis sign it, the Lake County Commission will have to vote to absorb the board.
As for a referendum, that remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the Lake County Water Authority continues operating, though its future is uncertain.
"We are just trying to do our jobs," said Ben Garcia, LCWA's interim executive director. "I think that we have been efficient at doing it for all of these years. We have been innovative cleaning our waterways and doing our water projects and our projects between us and other agencies, including with St. John’s."