Citrus Department facing smaller budget, staff cuts

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The Florida Department of Citrus could get a pared-down budget that will result in staff cuts.

The Citrus Commission, which oversees the department, meets Wednesday to consider the $20.6 million spending plan.

If approved, the department’s full time employees would be reduced to 23 from 39.

Commissioners won’t vote on that budget, but will offer “feedback,” department spokeswoman Shelley Rossetter said.

The final proposed budget will be presented for a vote on June 14, she added.

The tax per box that growers pay will be voted on in October after the first USDA crop estimate of the season, Rossetter said.

The department is “charged with the marketing, research and regulation of the Florida citrus industry,” its website explains.

It’s funded “by a tax paid by growers on each box of citrus that moves through commercial channels.”

But, because the citrus crop is shrinking, so are the department’s finances.

An so-far incurable disease called citrus greening is attacking fruit, causing it to turn green and bitter, and eventually killing the tree. Florida’s renowned oranges are most at risk.

The department did get nearly $7.7 million in general revenue in the 2016-17 state budget, but Gov. Rick Scott put restrictions on how that many can be spent.

They include having the Governor’s Office vet any new contracts using state money “to ensure transparency and competitive procurements.”

A dozen growers, including Florida Citrus Hall of Famer Ben Hill Griffin III, sent a letter in February to Florida Citrus Commission Chairman Ellis Hunt Jr.

Copies of the letter went to Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and others.

The growers said they “do not believe (the department’s) current marketing programs are generating an economic return.”

The current proposed budget includes an overall reduction of $9.7 million, or 32 percent, and salary reductions of $1.4 million, according to a summary.

“That reduction in staff will not be finalized until the budget is approved in June and will not take place until at least July 1, the start of our new fiscal year,” Rossetter said. “We are working with the Florida Department of Management Services, as required of any state agency, on a transition plan.”

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.