Ag Commissioner Bronson warns against budget cuts

By Bruce Ritchie

Cutting the budget of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services budget by 10 percent would have a “devastating impact” on his department and state residents, Charles Bronson, Florida’s elected agriculture commissioner, said Tuesday.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Charlie Crist have asked agencies to outline 10-percent spending cuts for next year because of reduced tax revenue caused by the slowing economy. Agencies also have been asked to identify 4-percent cuts in this year’s budget.

Bronson told the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee that to achieve the 10 percent reduction, he recommends closing an agriculture inspection station on Interstate 10 in Pensacola and reducing inspections of show animals in Florida and citrus crops bound for other countries — all measures that he suggested threaten jobs or reduce public safety.

Bronson proposed cutting 20 positions for inspectors at weekend animal sales shows and sales to reduce spreading of animal disease. And he proposes cutting 61 field positions for a savings of $1 million from the Division of Plant Industry, including 22 in the plant inspection program, including citrus products.

The cuts, he said, would have a “great impact” on the state’s nursery industry and could undermine sales to other states.

“Other states rely on us to do our job here to inspect,” he said. There have been few problems in the past, he said, because other states “know the program we run.”

Closing the Pensacola inspection station “totally leaves Northwest Florida open to almost anything” traveling across state lines in trucks, Bronson said. Such inspection stations, he said, are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year inspecting crops and livestock for pests, with inspectors sometimes finding drugs, stolen goods or weapons and illegal aliens.

“Disease doesn’t shut down,” Bronson said. “Pests don’t shut down and homeland security issues don’t shut down at any time during the day. So trying to keep those open with the right kind of manpower there is a tough proposition.”

The Pensacola station was opened in 2006. But Bronson said if the station wasn’t closed and positions were cut from other inspection stations, several of them would have to close.

He said the overall recommendations would save $5.2 million in general revenue and $9.3 million from trust funds.

Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and committee chairman, told Bronson he was concerned about the cuts in the inspection stations. After the meeting, Poppell said his committee would make recommendations to the House leadership on what cuts should occur.

“We may not have to cut as deep into one program as you think,” he said. “But we are going to be looking at everything.”

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