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Funds Sought For Snail Fight, Everglades Restoration, And Wildfire Pay

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TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — Florida intends to continue the fight against Giant African land snails and citrus greening next year and could direct more than $80 million to Everglades restoration efforts, according to budget requests Wednesday from state agriculture and environmental agencies.

The legislative budget proposals also would increase funding for freshwater springs protection and provide $1.5 million to give pay increases to the state's wild-land firefighters.

"Thankfully we've received an abundance of rainfall this year," said Derek Buchanan, director of policy and budget for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "However, the tragedies we saw in Arizona and in this state in Hamilton County in 2011 remind us that our firefighters are putting their lives on the line each day."

The pay raises would be about $1,500 for each wild-land firefighter. Another $1 million has been requested to cover overtime as a way to help fill about 20 vacancies.

Agencies throughout state government presented budget requests Wednesday for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which starts July 1. Gov. Rick Scott will consider those requests as he puts together a budget proposal that will go to the Legislature. Ultimately, it will be up to lawmakers to decide which of the requests get funded.

Along with seeking to boost firefighter pay, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' budget request addresses issues such as Giant African land snails. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's agency is requesting $3.4 million to continue a two-year-old effort to eradicate the pest from Miami-Dade County.

More than 133,000 snails have already been eliminated.

"We are experiencing success, collections have gone from 1,000 a week a year ago to a few hundred a week now," Buchanan said.

Originally from East Africa, the snails can grow to 8 inches long. They consume at least 500 different types of plants and can damage buildings by eating the plaster and stucco for calcium.

The state budgeted $3.6 million this year for the eradication effort, with additional money included in a $6 million package the state received through a federal farm bill in March.

The budget requests also pinpoint the precarious state of Florida's citrus industry.

The Florida Department of Citrus is proposing a $58.3 million budget, which is down $3.8 million from the current year.

The decrease is due in part to a projected decline in citrus crops, therefore a decline in revenue.

A big reason for the decline is citrus greening, a bacterial disease that has been devastating the $9-billion-a-year industry.

Putnam's agency has proposed $6.5 million toward addressing greening, of which $2 million would expand the research lab and greenhouses in LaCrosse and $4 million would go into research of the disease.

The Department of Environmental Protection has proposed a $1.4 billion budget, up about $100,000 from the current year.

The DEP budget includes $75 million that Gov. Rick Scott has proposed for Everglades restoration efforts, $40 million for environmental land acquisition, and $15 million for springs restoration, up from the $10 million designated during the 2013 session.

Half of the land acquisition funding, as in the current year, would come from the sale of non-conservation lands, said DEP Chief of Staff Leonard "Lennie" Zeiler.

DEP has another $19 million proposed for state park improvements, including $4 million to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services' budget request also offers another $10 million to address nutrient reduction practices and water retention efforts in the Lake Okeechobee watershed, $8.2 million for best management practices in the northern Everglades, and $5.2 million to reduce agricultural nutrients from reaching the state's northern freshwater springs.