Soil and Water Board: To Be or Not to Be? A Local Conservation Panel Is Asking the State to Let It Terminate Itself

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Byline: DAVID HUNT

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson has denied the Duval Soil and Water Conservation District board's death wish.

At least for now.

For the past several months, the board's core duties as an advocate and educator on conservation and erosion control have been overshadowed by several members' desire to make the board - which started in 1953 - a thing of the past.

Critics say the board became unnecessary over the years as Jacksonville grew more urbanized and farmland shrunk. Supporters say the board still has an important voice as residential growth encroaches on natural resources.

Discussion reached a high point in April with a 3-2 vote in favor of sending Bronson a resolution asking for his blessing to dissolve.

That drew immediate criticism from the Association of Florida Conservation Districts, which pointed out that perhaps the members who think the board has lived past its useful life should step aside for new members who could reinvigorate it.

Board members are not paid, but their elections have the potential to cost taxpayers thousands of dollars, board member Austin Cassidy said.

Each candidate is entitled to have a listing in the candidate statements announcement that the elections supervisor mails to Duval County's registered voters, which totalled 526,518 as of Friday. Cassidy reasoned that the number of candidates would fill up one page in the candidate statements, and each page costs taxpayers an estimated $32,580.

"I can guarantee you that the people running for this board will spend more on the election than the board itself has to spend," Cassidy said. He added that he'd be in favor of converting the board into a nonprofit entity that would act independent of tax dollars unless it successfully competed for the money.

The board was getting $44,100 in city public service grants as recently as 2006 but has not gotten any of that in the past several years. What's left is less than $5,000 in a budget that some think is far too small to launch an educational campaign.

Although the board technically has taxing authority, it's never used it.

"There are Little League teams with larger budgets out there," Cassidy said, "and they don't require a publicly elected board of supervisors to manage them."

Still, with elections slated for November - and seven candidates on the ballot - Bronson decided to hold off granting the board's request to dissolve unless it's also the wish of the new members. …