With no court rulings in the way, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service has restarted its citrus-canker eradication program, chopping down thousands of healthy "exposed" backyard trees to protect the $8 billion Florida citrus industry from what growers claim would be certain disaster.
Whether or not canker is as serious a threat as the state claims is debatable [see "The canker war," Feb. 13]. What isn't in question is the Department of Agriculture's problems keeping track of the eradication program itself.
The department is downplaying a highly critical report issued by the Florida Auditor General's office last month. The audit focuses on the Pest Incident Control System (PICS) -- a 2-year-old database the department uses to store information on the eradication program's progress -- and lists deficiencies in security, data-entry and software.
Then there's this damning tidbit: Auditors randomly picked 20 properties in the PICS system to verify data accuracy. Ten had wrong information, including "missing data or data not matching supporting source documents." As the report states, "Erroneous or incomplete information in PICS could jeopardize the effectiveness of the Department's ability to accurately and effectively battle the citrus-canker outbreak."
"That's not a big problem in our mind," says department spokeswoman Liz Compton. Many of the errors were minor, says Compton, pointing specifically to one discrepancy in which the department's surveyors listed a property as being part of Miami instead of Homestead. "This is very minor," she says. "The address is not duplicative."
And Compton pins at least some of the blame on property appraisers' records. For instance, if you own a home within an eradication zone then sell it, property records might not catch up for a few weeks. Until they do, the department will continue to enter information about the property under the prior owner's name -- technically, a data-entry error.
While the Auditor General's office admits some of its findings are routine, the fact that half of the properties it surveyed had errors in PICS records isn't. "We didn't do a statistical sample, so there's no way we can project [the findings onto the program as a whole]," says audit manager Jon Ingram. "But there certainly were a significant number of discrepancies. The department really should take a look at that."
Errors include potentially big problems, like wrong street addresses, Ingram says.
Orlando Weekly requested a report of point-by-point explanations for the 10 discrepancies to see how minor they really are, but Compton said the office hadn't yet finished it and promised to provide a copy as soon as it was submitted to the Auditor General's office.
With the Florida Supreme Court expected to weigh in on the eradication program's constitutionality soon, the audit could be very embarrassing for the agriculture department. "This computer system drives the entire program of destruction," says Andrew Meyers, an attorney for Broward County. "Every healthy tree that is destroyed is destroyed based upon what the computer says. Given the stakes, one would expect an agency of the state to be completely diligent [to ensure accuracy]. The state has failed to exercise even a minimum amount of care."
"It's mind-boggling that the Department of Agriculture can make so many errors and just trivialize it like it's no big deal," says attorney Barry Silver, who has filed a class-action lawsuit against the department on behalf of Palm Beach County homeowners.
Because the department has taken nearly a month to issue its point-by-point response, Silver says, the explanations likely aren't as simple as Compton implies. "Obviously it's a little more complicated than that. It does show to me that they consider everybody's trees expendable, [as if] it doesn't matter."
He recently filed another lawsuit in Palm Beach County on behalf of two men who had their trees mistakenly cut after the department mixed up consent forms.
Interestingly, the media hasn't said much about the audit. A Nexis search revealed two hits -- a 560 word story by the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and a 136-word brief buried deep in the Orlando Sentinel. Silver hadn't even seen the coverage until the Weekly faxed him copies. (The audit, and the department's response, is available on the Auditor General's website, www.state.fl.us/audgen/.)
In his response, agriculture commissioner Charles Bronson promised improved security and safeguards, and random testing of the PICS system to ensure that good information is used before trees are cut.
For opponents of the canker eradication program, this audit is symptomatic of the department's bigger problems. "The types of mistakes reflected in the audit are very typical of this department's willingness to disregard private property rights," says Meyers.