Economy forces Florida to revisit U.S. Sugar buyout

Shrinking wallet, growing debt.

The same combination that torpedoed Florida's housing market and triggered Wall Street's plunge has put the state's plan to buy out Big Sugar on shaky ground.

Financing the proposed $1.75 billion purchase of the U.S. Sugar Corp. has quickly turned more complex and risky than anyone expected only a month ago -- potentially even too pricey for the South Florida Water Management District to afford.

While water managers Wednesday stressed that appraisals, environmental assessments and negotiations were moving forward, they also expressed growing concerns about saddling the agency -- and taxpayers -- with massive debt while the economy is in trouble.

''People are going to question our sanity and, No. 2, our credibility,'' said water district governing board member Charles Dauray during a meeting in West Palm Beach.

Dauray remained optimistic about getting a deal done that would help restore not just the struggling Everglades but Lake Okeechobee and rivers on both coasts. But he cautioned that the board was keenly aware of the financial risks, and would be ``realists.''

Last month, water managers pushed back an original Nov. 30 deadline on the deal, saying they needed more time to complete the largest conservation land purchase in state history. Financial experts made it clear it had quickly become more complicated and, possibly, more expensive.

Interest rates on municipal bonds have jumped almost a percentage point, which could add tens of millions of dollars in costs. The 11 investment banks listed as potential lenders have been whittled to eight by Wall Street collapses.

The water district's revenue -- the purse for paying off debt -- has shrunk from declining property values and real-estate tax reductions.

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