Heavy Department of Citrus Cuts Proposed

Ernie Neff Citrus, Florida, Fruits, Industry News Release, Specialty Crops

Ellis Hunt

Ellis Hunt

Shannon Shepp

Shannon Shepp

The Florida Citrus Commission discussed on Wednesday proposals for heavy cuts to the Florida Department of Citrus budget next season. Commission Chairman Ellis Hunt and department Executive Director Shannon Shepp discuss the projected budget for next year, the funding for it, personnel cuts and how the budget will proceed. Twelve large growers and several organizations recently requested drastic cuts in the department’s budget in the face of increased production costs caused by HLB.

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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 27, 2016………. The Florida Citrus Commission is looking to cut the budget of the Florida Department of Citrus by almost a third as the industry struggles with a deadly citrus disease.

The proposed reduction, discussed during a budget workshop Wednesday, may not initially go as far as some influential growers and Gov. Rick Scott have requested. But the change would put the budget just above $20 million, down from around $30 million in the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

“This is a big team effort and a lot of work has gone into this,” said commission Chairman Ellis Hunt, a Lake Wales-based citrus grower. “And it will continue. When we get this new budget established, we’re going to continue, as we start under the new budget, we’re going to continue this examination to see where there are more savings.”

The final numbers will depend in part if money unspent from the current year can be used in the next budget. That will also help the agency calculate a new, lower “box” tax rate that growers pay to help fund the department’s operations, said department Executive Director Shannon Shepp.

The budget proposal doesn’t outline staff reductions — officials said they will occur — or include expected reductions in travel expenses. But among the proposed changes, paid advertising programs would be reduced, and celebrity spokespeople and the creation of new promotional items, such as the Marvel-branded Captain Citrus, would be eliminated. Materials already created would continue to be used to promote the agency and the benefits of citrus.

The department paid Marvel $1 million in 2014 to revamp Florida’s homegrown superhero from a rotund, animated orange creature from the Planet Orange into a muscled-up teen empowered by mysterious solar pods in Central Florida.

The agency would also seek to save money by not participating in the Florida Citrus Show, the Citrus Expo and in National OJ Day programs, according to an outline of the proposal.

“I think we have a real opportunity here to bring the tax relief that the industry, almost unanimously, has requested,” Andy Taylor, chief financial officer at Peace River Citrus Products, said Wednesday.

The industry has been hammered recently by citrus “greening,” a deadly disease that decreases production. A survey by University of Florida researchers found that 80 percent of the citrus trees currently in operation across the state are infected with the disease

The proposed department budget numbers are higher than growers have suggested due in part to lawmakers including $7 million for the agency in the state budget for marketing efforts.

In February, a letter from growers called for reducing the box tax and scaling back department operations they fund to just over $7 million, trimming staff to 10 from the current 39 and pruning public-relations efforts from $9 million to $2 million.

Scott later supported the growers, who included Ben Hill Griffin III of Frostproof-based Ben Hill Griffin Inc.; David Duda of A. Duda & Sons in Oviedo; Bill Becker of Vero Beach-based Peace River Citrus Products; and Bob Buker, the CEO and president of U.S. Sugar Corp. who is listed on the letter with subsidiary Southern Gardens Citrus.

An outline of the budget presentation noted that core functions of the agency, such as health programs that increase the demand for citrus and research against deadly diseases impacting the industry, can be modified during the year to meet grower needs and requests.

A more-thorough budget for next year is expected to be presented at a May 18 meeting. The commission is expected to vote on the budget in June.