by Jim Turner
Free orange juice will continue to be available to travelers at Florida welcome centers as the Department of Citrus squeezes staff to help the embattled industry.
The Florida Citrus Commission on Tuesday approved a preliminary $20.7 million budget that will eliminate 20 of 46 positions at the Department of Citrus, including 14 that are currently filled. Employees who will lose their jobs are in administration, scientific research and marketing.
The agency in May had proposed reducing staff to 23 employees. However, the agency was able to settle on a higher number without impacting the overall budget after reorganizing the duties of workers, staff members told the commission.
Along with the budget, the commission on Tuesday renewed a $250,000 contract with Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism arm, to continue the tradition of providing free juice at state welcome centers on Interstates 10, 75 and 95 and U.S. 231.
Samantha Lane, director of public relations and brand, said the program is a “great way” to promote the state’s citrus industry.
Overall, the preliminary 2016-17 budget is a reduction from a $30.3 million spending plan for the current fiscal year.
The staff reductions are expected to be completed by September, when the first crop estimates are made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the next citrus harvest season.
The budget cuts stem from severe problems in the industry, which has been besieged by citrus greening, a deadly disease that decreases production. Reducing the budget will lower a tax that growers pay to fund the department.
While the final budget and the “box tax” rates on growers won’t be set until October, the plan as it now stands would drop the rate from 23 cents to 10 cents on each 90-pound box of processed oranges. The tax could go from 19 cents to 10 cents for each box of grapefruit.
Some major growers called for reducing the rates to 7 cents a box, which remains a possibility. However, such a reduction would depend on crop estimates for next season and unspent money from the current year.
The next budget is based on growers producing enough citrus to fill 50 million to 68 million boxes.
Last week, the USDA slightly boosted the forecast for the current season to 81.4 million boxes of oranges and 10.85 million boxes of grapefruit.
Still, even with the revised forecast, the season remains on pace to be far lower than the 2014-2015 growing season total of 96.94 million boxes of oranges.
The harvest has gone down from 133.6 million boxes during the 2012-2013 growing season and 104.7 million boxes in the 2013-2014 season. Production peaked in the 1997-1998 season when 244 million boxes were filled.