by Jim Turner, News Service of Florida
The Florida Department of Citrus plans to continue to squeeze its operations during the coming year as the industry struggles, though travelers will still be able to receive free orange juice at state welcome centers.
The Florida Citrus Commission, which oversees the department, approved a preliminary $17.5 million operating budget Wednesday that would feature a 22 percent spending cut, with no change to a so-called “box tax” on oranges.
The spending reductions during the 2017-2018 fiscal year would come mostly by eliminating retail-marketing efforts, which stood at $1.5 million in the current year, a $1.43 million cut to public relations and a nearly $1 million decrease to the fresh and gift fruit program.
The agency’s plan includes $4.65 million from the state Legislature, down from $7.65 million in the current state budget.
The proposal also includes a $250,000 contract with the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida, similar to the current year, to continue providing orange juice to travelers at state welcome centers on Interstate 10, Interstate 75, Interstate 95 and U.S. 231.
The funding package moved forward Wednesday as the industry continues to struggle against deadly citrus-greening disease and drought conditions in recent months. The ongoing orange harvest is forecast to be down 16 percent from last year’s decades-low yield.
The box tax on growers helps pay for the agency’s operations.
The steady decline in revenue from annual harvests resulted in the department eliminating 20 positions a year ago in administration, scientific research, and marketing. The budget was reduced at the time from $30.3 million to $20.7 million.
Also, the department reduced the box-tax rates from 23 cents to 7 cents on each 90-pound box of processed oranges and from 19 cents to 7 cents for each box of grapefruit. The reductions had been sought by growers and supported by Gov. Rick Scott. Under the new proposal, the box tax on grapefruit would go to 5 cents.
For next year, the department will grow from 26 to 27 full-time positions through the addition of a registered dietician who had previously been under contract with the agency.
The agency is working promote the nutritional value of orange juice, which has faced criticism that the benefits of vitamin C are outweighed by its sugar content.
Christine Marion, the department’s deputy director of administration and finance, noted that one of the positions is filled by two part-time employees.
The proposed budget won’t be finalized until October — when the first forecast for next growing season is available — at which time the box tax will be set for the new fiscal year, Marion said.
The proposed budget is based on growers producing 10 percent less next growing season.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast earlier this month that growers in Florida would produce enough oranges in the soon-to-be-completed season to fill 68.5 million 90-pound boxes, down from 81.6 million boxes during the 2015-2016 season. The outlook for the state’s grapefruit harvest remained at 7.8 million boxes.
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