The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday upheld — with one pointed and potentially critical exception — state water managers’ plans to bankroll a $536 million purchase of a big chunk of the U.S. Sugar Corp. empire with bonds.
The justices did reverse part of a Palm Beach County circuit court decision issued last year, cutting out $50 million the agriculture giant had demanded for granting the South Florida Water Managment District a three-year “option” to buy an even larger swath in the future. The ruling also prohibited water managers from using the bond money to buy other parcels.
The long-awaited decision came too late to have any direct or immediate effect on a sugar deal Gov. Charlie Crist and environmentalists championed as a key to Everglades restoration. The district’s governing board, slammed by plummeting property tax revenues, dropped the bonding plan as too expensive and instead opted for a radically downsized cash buy: $197 million for 26,800 acres of citrus groves and cane fields between the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee.
“I view this as a victory after the fact,” said Eric Buermann, a Miami attorney who chairs the district’s governing board.
But he acknowledged that the court’s take on the land option could complicate any effort to acquire more land in the future. The new deal with U.S. Sugar, which closed last month, also include options to buy the tens of thousands more acres at $7,400 an acre over the next three years or at market price over the next decade.
The crux of the lawsuits brought by the Miccosukee Tribe and Florida Crystals, a rival grower, was whether the district’s plan was a misuse of a kind of bond financing often used by school boards and government agencies known as certificates of participation.
The court rejected arguments by the Tribe and Crystals of Indians that the land deal did not serve a “public purpose,” saying efforts to clean up an store water for the Everglades clearly fit that description — with the exception of the $50 million land “option” payout to U.S. Sugar,
The ruling included an additional opinion from Justice Fred Lewis, who concurs with the result of the opinion but blasts his colleagues for the way they arrive at it.
He accused the court majority of perpetuating previous flawed rulings that allow local government — and now the district — to issue long-term debt without the constitutionally required voter approval.
This “perpetuates and expands a distortion of our fundamental organic law, leads us beyond our prior precedent, and denies the voters of this State their constitutional right to determine whether their local governments should issue long-term debt that is payable from ad valorem taxation,” Lewis wrote.
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