“Mr. President, please don’t make this issue about saving one area of your district at the expense of another,” said former Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor, setting the tone for a 90-minute community forum on Senate Bill 10 in Pahokee Friday night.
State Senate President Joe Negron’s newly configured district spans from the agricultural Glades communities south of Lake Okeechobee to coastal communities in Martin and St. Lucie heavily impacted by lake discharges in 2013 and 2016.
Negron’s ardent support for Senate Bill 10, filed by state Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island), authorizing the purchase of 60,000 acres of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area for water storage brought him west for the meeting which drew more than 600 local residents out for a community conversation.
The auditorium at Pahokee High School accommodates only 400, leaving a large overflow crowd outside, though many made their voices heard via signs, the media and petitions in the hour before the meeting began. Margaret Smart, a Methodist pastor from Pahokee, had gathered large stacks of petitions reading “I do not support Senator Negron’s plan to waste billions of taxpayer dollars to take 60,000-155,00 acres of farmland out of production and cost Florida more than 4,000 jobs.”
The gathering was orderly and respectful but the residents’ emotions ran high. “Politicians don’t give a thought about people in the Glades, they think about us as cattle, not humans,” said Eddie Rhodes of Belle Glade. Patricia Wilson of Pahokee said two sugar mills had been shuttered in the past, “Now they are bringing Wellington’s horse manure here to the old Bryant Sugar Mill, who wants to smell that in the summer?”
Sharing the auditorium dais with Negron were Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon II, who moderated the meeting, Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb Jr. and Pahokee City Manager Chandler Williamson.
Negron said his goal for the evening was to listen and understand the concerns of his constituents in Pahokee, Clewiston, Belle Glade and the surrounding area. “I know there are legitimate economic concerns that I want to learn more about as this bill moves forward in the process so that we will look for an opportunity to find a solution, as the leader said, that addresses the issues of this area but also makes sure that every community is doing its fair share to make that happen,” he said.
Negron added that it was unsustainable long term to have billions of gallons of water discharging east and west of the lake. “It’s also very dangerous for the Glades communities and the tens of thousands of people who live south of the lake because, as we all know, in the 1920s when there was a hurricane, over 200 people died when the lake overflowed,” he said.
Area residents submitted written questions and comments, read by the moderator, most directed at Negron. The questions illustrated concerns about their jobs, the economic impacts of converting active farmland to water storage, and highlighted other options for water storage which would not affect their livelihoods.
In response to one question, McKinlay, whose county commission district includes the Glades area, said she does not support taking land out of active agricultural production. “There are 5-1/2 million acres in public ownership south of the lake,” she said. “The Army Corps and Water Management District spent a decade coming up with the Integrated Delivery System of projects and they are put in scientific order for a reason. I think you have to have the other projects in place before you figure out where that (southern) water storage is going to be.”
State Rep. Rick Roth (R-Wellington) asked what would happen if the bill becomes law and no willing sellers come forward. Unsatisfied with Negron’s response that he believes by the time session is over there will be a combination of government-owned land and privately owned land made available for southern storage, Roth asked twice for a direct answer to his question, with the support and applause of the crowd. Negron responded that the state has an existing option for land purchase already. After Roth again said his question wasn’t answered, Braynon told him they would talk in Tallahassee.
McKinlay’s comments about the potential effects of taking 60,000 acres out of production on the Glades communities also received strong audience support. “The ripple effect of taking land out of agricultural production is much larger than all of a sudden we have a few fewer farmers,” she said, adding that it was projected two packing houses would close. “You hurt these small farmers that make our community our community…. You’re hurting a lot of the community,” McKinlay said and ran down a list of those potentially affected including machinists, field workers, the tractor industry and local businesses that rely on residents’ disposable income such as tackle shops and mom-and-pop restaurants.
Citing an unemployment rate of between 20-28 percent, a 40 percent poverty level and a median income that is half of the rest of Palm Beach County, McKinlay also noted that the school district, ministries and churches would bear a higher burden in trying to provide needed extra services.
McKinlay also thanked Negron for his past and present support of infrastructure projects in the region, most currently improvements to the marina. But, all the officials on the dais made it clear they did not want to trade active agricultural land for economic development projects. “This is a humble community from all around the lake,” McKinlay said, “we grow the world’s food.”
Local resident Ben Sargoza summed up the community’s message to Negron in his written comment: “Put yourself in our shoes. Imagine every day working hard day by day. This is everything we have. Please don’t buy our land, we’ll lose everything.”