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Florida's Fraudsters
The Toxic Lies of the Growth Machine
by ALAN FARAGO

In Miami-Dade County — Florida’s most populous and politically influential county–  a billion dollars is needed immediately to replace just the most deteriorated and vulnerable sections of the wastewater system, according to a five month internal study. It is scarcely news. Miami Dade County government has been concealing its infrastructure deficits for years. County commissioners kept the crisis away from the sight of voters.

The purpose of the concealment was to make the region attractive to cheap development. The billion dollar infrastructure bill is the tip of the iceberg, and it is only emerging because a federal agency, the US EPA, had the guts to insist that Miami-Dade do something to prevent a catastrophic sewage break. At the height of the housing boom, cheap development and jobs servicing more cheap development ferried more than a thousand people a day to live in Florida, a state that boasted one of the highest growth rates in the nation. In 2010, Florida was home to one-third of all homeless families who have no shelter at all — people living in their cars, under bridges, in parks.

It is more than trickery to claim — as Florida’s Growth Machine does– that the ad valorem tax base has to be increased to cover infrastructure needs. The claim was spurious twenty five years ago,when I learned how local power brokers in the Florida Keys set their sights on development at any cost, enlisting the political class to its service. On face value, encouraging more development in order to fill in funding for infrastructure, like roadways, schools, prisons, and water infrastructure, is institutionalized fraud.

These days the fraud is perpetrated under the various disguises of fiscal conservatism. One is the claim that the GOP believes in “pay as you go”: in other words, reducing government program costs to match revenues. But in Florida, the purpose of this invented reality is to eliminate regulations — mainly ones related to quality of life — the so-called “job killers”. For example, the state agency that attempted — half-heartedly and under constant political pressure from both parties — to require the matching of development to infrastructure was first knee-capped then eliminated by the most unpopular governor in the United States, Rick Scott. The Florida Department of Community Affairs required “concurrency”; that is to say, ensuring that local governments put funding, planning and implementation in place to protect taxpayers’ quality of life before shoe-horning more growth. The Growth Machine hated it. Governor Scott was indifferent, and DCA was eliminated in the 2012 legislative session. What remains could fit in a Tallahassee office building’s broom closet.

Here is what the fraudsters say: private enterprise does a better job of protecting the public than government. I refer, specifically, to the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, and the various lobbyist entities representing the Growth Machine. What they do is different: they hobble, neuter and eviscerate government so that it cannot protect people, neighbors, or the environment.

They called their product — suburban sprawl and its accoutrements– “what the market wants”, and it couldn’t exist but for fraud. Whatever you want to call the outcome, it involves partisan politics ripping apart government capacity to protect. Those claiming to be “fiscal conservatives” perpetrate massive fraud against the very principles of conservatism. Saving and protecting what sustains us is the essence of conservation, but it anathema to America’s conservatives. What they do best is to lie — Karl Rove called it “inventing reality” in his 2003 interview with the New York Times’ Ron Suskind– , and the public is as susceptible to those lies as they are to mercury in the Florida environment that government agencies are too timid to regulate.

The growth model depended on burying billions of infrastructure deficits — like sewerage plunged down “safe” holes thousands of feet underground. Starting in 1998 and during the Jeb Bush terms as governor, the state of Florida guarded the use of underground aquifer layers as parking lots for barely treated sewerage as closely as a state secret. In the early 2000′s Sierra Club in Florida attempted to quantify the amount and came up with more than a billion gallons per day. The number turned out to be conservative. More than a billion gallons per day is poured down so many wells in Florida that a map of well locations makes the state look like a piece of Swiss cheese.

The practice had been allowed by the EPA on the premise that the migration of pollutants underground could not occur because of geological barriers. When some of the wells in Florida were discovered to be leaking from its so-called “confining layer”– one such facility is literally at the edge of Biscayne National Park — Jeb Bush, Florida’s Congressional delegation, and its cities and counties petitioned EPA to change the Safe Drinking Water Act rule to permit the pollution. (Once the Safe Drinking Water Act was changed to allow the pollution of underground aquifers in Florida — despite a federal legal challenge by Sierra Club — the practice of “fracking” for natural gas took off. Fracking depends on the injection of fluids deep underground to extract natural gas.)

Burying pollution serves the important purpose of shifting costs to unsuspecting and even ignorant voters such as Tea Party believers who decry big government while failing to understand that only government can protect them — but only if government staff have courage and leadership. Florida, today, under “conservative” governor Rick Scott is leading a full court press against the US EPA to prevent its regulation of pollution of Florida waters from fertilizers. In 1994, Florida voters amended the state constitution by direct referendum and provided that the sugar industry was primarily responsible for cleaning up its fertilizer pollution of the Everglades. In two state supreme court decisions, justices admonished the Florida legislature that it was required to enact the required legislation. It has never happened. Florida sugar growers — who are staunch Republicans like Pepe Fanjul — or Democrats — like Alfie Fanjul, his brother — self-police their harm the same way that cigarette manufacturers did.

The St. Pete Times put a neat bow around this stinky business of crippling government capacity to protect people, through an editorial board statement on Saturday, summarizing a week of investigations:

“Even as Florida was leading the nation in mortgage fraud, Tom Grady thought it wise to close half the state’s regional offices charged with investigating the mortgage business. As head of the Office of Financial Regulation, Grady, a millionaire securities lawyer, took a bulldozer to the place, slashing office resources and personnel, including fraud investigators, and ousting a veteran administrator to put a crony of the governor’s in his place. He also spent lavishly on his own travel. Though he’s out of office now, Grady’s poor management affected the state’s ability to police wrongdoing in the financial sector, which may have been the point all along. Grady was handpicked by Gov. Rick Scott, a neighbor in Naples, to takeover as commissioner of OFR, the state agency that oversees and investigates mortgage brokers, banks and securities firms. He shares Scott’s government-cutting, anti regulation ethos, and during his short tenure moved aggressively to pare back the office’s physical presence throughout the state. Florida is known as a hotbed of mortgage and financial fraud. Fort Lauderdale is home to so many scammers it’s known as “Fraud Lauderdale.” But Grady, a former conservative Republican legislator, led the effort to chop more $3.5 million from the agency by eliminating 81 positions including investigators and closing regional offices in Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Pensacola and Fort Lauderdale.”

Then there is the issue of water supply and the irrational willingness of Miami-Dade to commit to 300 million gallons per day of re-use water for the new nuclear plants planned at Turkey Point by Florida Power and Light. What is the cost of supplying that water under conditions of sea level rise, through which most if not all of Miami-Dade’s wastewater infrastructure will need to be replaced if not abandoned? This would seem a question conservatives would be in favor of asking before committing more than $20 billion; the cost of the new reactors according to FPL. But the answer might jeopardize a powerful campaign contributor’s plan to build more platted subdivisions in Everglades wetlands. And with interest rates near zero, the next boom is around the corner. So build the roads, but don’t plan on re-paving them, make the schools interchangeable with prisons and let the rivers run green with slime and algae: it’s only a matter of time before buyers flood back and their taxes pay for the rest.

ALAN FARAGO, conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades, lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net