Gov. DeSantis shuffles Citrus Commission membership ahead of major tax vote

Orange grove. Credit: floridacitrus.org

Five days ahead of a big tax vote on the Florida Citrus Commission, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday replaced three members of the panel.

The new commissioners take the place of three predecessors who had been serving on the commission despite their terms expiring up to 18 months ago.

The new appointees are Paul Meador, president of Everglades Harvesting and Hauling; Steve Johnson, president and owner of Johnson Harvesting;  and Bill Poulton, director of manufacturing for Tropicana, a division of PepsiCo.

They succeed attorney Francisco Pines, citrus grower V.C. Hollingsworth III, and Aedan Dowling, also with Tropicana.

The nine-member commission oversees and guides the activities of the Florida Department of Citrus. The industry is struggling after a perfect storm of Hurricane Irma in 2017, grove-killing citrus greening, and competition from foreign growers.

The Phoenix wrote earlier about the newest crisis: a large portion of this season’s harvest may fall to the ground and rot because growers can’t sell it.

On Wednesday, the commission is scheduled to vote on proposals to increase, possibly dramatically, the industry’s self-imposed citrus box tax from 7 cents per 90-pound box.

“Every penny of box tax is worth about $700,000 to market oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, says Ray Royce, director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association. “Historically (the box tax) was 23 cents.”

The association, representing 180 growers and 8.5 million citrus trees, supports a limited increase in the box tax to help market citrus to consumers who have gradually lost interest in it, Royce said.  The growers want the state to help.

“If they see an increase in the marketing, it gives them a reason to stay in the game,” Royce said of growers on the verge of giving up.

Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade organization, opposes an increase in the tax, said spokesman Andrew Meadows. He said the organization wants the Legislature to increase state funding for marketing from last year’s $900,000 to, ideally, its former level of $5 million.

Meadows and Royce, not surprisingly, were complimentary about Gov. DeSantis’ appointees and each declined to comment on how it might affect the Citrus Commission’s upcoming vote on the box tax.

The outgoing commissioners’ terms expired in May 2018 and May 2019.

“The timing was surprising for some,” Royce said of the announcement Friday about the new appointees.