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Citrus agency shifts money as industry seeks aid

The Ledger – January 18, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Department of Citrus adjusted its budget Wednesday for the second time this growing season, as leaders of the storm-battered industry hold out hope the U.S. Senate will approve a disaster-relief package.

The Citrus Commission, which oversees the department, agreed to shift more than $70,000 out of administration, scientific-research and global-marketing budgets to cover an anticipated drop in revenue from December.

The Department of Citrus is funded through a “box” tax on citrus. Revenues have dropped as citrus production has declined in recent years because of citrus-greening disease and destruction from September’s Hurricane Irma.

Christine Marion, commission secretary, said the agency reduced research materials by $10,000, a nutritional program by $45,000, and administrative costs by $23,500.

Department officials said they were able to make the cuts without eliminating programs or personnel. The administrative changes were made through scaling back on areas that included training, vehicle purchases, equipment-rental fees and database fees.

The moves came despite a January forecast for this season’s citrus crops holding mostly stable when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a monthly outlook last Friday.

The monthly numbers were the first sign of a potential bottom from the devastation of Hurricane Irma, which washed away up to 70 percent to 90 percent of the crop for some growers in South and Central Florida.

Still, the December and January forecasts represent a 15 percent drop from the initial forecast in October and a 33 percent reduction from the prior seasons’ five-decade low output of oranges and grapefruit.

In December, the commission shifted $556,147 from reserves to cover a separate anticipated reduction in the budget.

The budget adjustments have come as the industry awaits the fate of an $81 billion disaster relief package the U.S. House approved in December that is targeted for hurricane-impacted areas of Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico and wildfire-damaged regions of California. The package, which has been held up as Congress works on a short-term funding bill, includes $2.6 billion for agriculture.

Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, who traveled to Washington, D.C. in December, said Wednesday it is “frustrating” that the Senate won’t take a “clean vote” on the package.

“We’re just going to pursue and not give up,” Hunt said.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs estimated in October that Irma caused $2.5 billion in damage to the state’s agriculture industry, including $761 million to the citrus industry.

State lawmakers have said the citrus crop damage has since topped $1 billion but no further post-storm estimates have been made.

“Florida’s iconic citrus industry and its growers continue to struggle with the unprecedented damage caused by Hurricane Irma,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said after the monthly forecast was released Friday. “This damage, combined with the cumulative impacts of citrus greening, leaves Florida’s growers in desperate need of support.”

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