MAXWELL:  Lake Apopka, taxpayers’ money pit

12/13/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Florida taxpayers have been fleeced. The fleecing, both environmental and financial, is contributing to the misery of a select group of workers.

We have been swindled by our own state government, by the governor, by the Legislature, by the St. Johns River Water Management District. We have been ripped off by the farmers who, for more than 50 years and until June 30, grew vegetables on the black muck that used to be the bottom of Lake Apopka, Florida’s second-largest lake before officials poisoned it, dredged it, diked it and drained it.

At one time, images of Lake Apopka graced postcards and the lake was advertised nationally. It was one of the most vital fisheries in the nation, serving 29 fish camps on its shores and producing lucrative incomes for the owners of hotels, motels, restaurants and other businesses catering to thousands of sports fishermen who came here every year.

The lake’s slow death began at the turn of the century, when authorities dug a navigation canal that altered natural outflow and disrupted water level patterns. But the real end of a healthy Lake Apopka came in the early 1940s _ after state officials allowed farmers to remove nearly 20,000 acres of marsh on the northern rim of the lake by diking it for growing vegetables.

Keep in mind, too, that the lake’s bottom is public property, but farmers were allowed to treat it as private property and amass fortunes from it.

Today, because of decades of farm-related nutrients and pesticides and industrial and municipal sewage discharges, Lake Apopka has been shrunk to a shallow, pea-green soup that supports gizzard shad and other hard-to-kill trash species unfit for a respectable dinner table.

During the 1960s, environmentalists initiated a movement to stop the pollution and restore the lake, located in west Orange and east Lake counties, to its pre-1940s’ condition.

The first stages of the proposed solution have been dramatic, bringing the financial fleecing of Florida. In a series of legal, but shameful, deals, the St. Johns River Water Management District used Florida tax dollars to buy out the 14 large muck farms on the lake’s northern shore at a cost of $91-million, plus an appraised value of $29-million in equipment acquired during the buyout.

Here, the saga takes on the appearance of a deal put together by mob bosses. A 1996 state law classified the equipment as surplus and determined that it should be auctioned to assist the more than 2,200 farm workers, many longtime homeowners and most American citizens, who lost their jobs after the farms closed.

The law earmarked up to 20 percent _ or a projected $6-million _ of the money raised for retraining farm workers. The rest of the money is slated to go to the regions most impacted by the shutdown. The same law, however, gave the management district permission to retain any equipment deemed necessary to restore Lake Apopka. Taking advantage of this loophole, water district officials kept $2.6-million worth of heavy equipment, including a fleet of pickups that, they claim, is needed to restore the marsh and clean the lake.

Besides the fact that the management district kept so much equipment, only a small sum of the tax dollars spent have been recouped because the very men whom the state bought out _ the former owners _ were first in line to buy back their equipment at bargain prices.

Here is an example of the public rip-off: The water management district paid Zellwin Farms $33.5-million for its operation based, in part, on the $14.2-million appraised value of the equipment. Specifically, the district paid Zellwin $1.4-million for its state-of-the-art vegetable precooler. On the first day of the auction, Zellwin general manager Glenn Rodgers bought back the precooler for $35,000.

Another farmer sold the state processing machinery for $500,000. He bought back the same stuff for $50,000. These farmers, along with others, will simply ship the equipment out of state, where they have other farms. In the case of Zellwin, the precooler is going to its vegetable processing facility in Lake Park, Ga., near Valdosta.

Public outcry in Apopka, whose economy stands to lose $110-million annually as a result of the shutdown, has been swift and fierce because the auction is losing millions. One official said the water district is earning pennies on the dollar. Generally, farm equipment is auctioned for about 30 percent of its value.

Most upset are farm worker advocates, such as Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida based in Apopka. “I’m disgusted,” she said. “At this rate, what’s going to be left for retraining workers? By the time farm workers get this 20 percent, how much will be left, what are they going to use it for, and who is going to be left to use it?”

The concerns of Economos and others for the displaced farm workers are real. Farmworker Association leaders said that, although county retraining efforts include a small stipend, child care and gas reimbursement, many workers have trouble using such benefits.

Because they are so poor and must feed their families, they must find work each day and, therefore, cannot “waste time,” as one worker described it, in classrooms or shops learning new subjects and trades. Economos said that many workers have taken low-paying jobs in daily labor polls. Others _ rising before dawn and returning near midnight _ travel long distances to pick citrus in other counties. Still others have left the area altogether. Most are also having serious housing problems because they no longer qualify for farm-related subsidized housing.

What happens to the millions of dollars in equipment that did not sell during the weeklong auction? It will be sold “dirt cheap” or “virtually given away,” an Apopka official said. Florida taxpayers, especially farm workers, are the clear losers in a buyout scheme that made the already rich much richer.

The fleecing of the Sunshine State continues.