It's clear that Hernando County commissioners now view the nearly $6 million environmentally sensitive lands fund as a pot of money they can dip into at any time for just about any purpose.
Need $275,000 to remove the clumps of vegetation clogging Hunter's Lake?
No matter that a county attorney said this was not an approved use, the commission last week grabbed the money from the fund anyway.
Looking for $80,000 to fix the storm-damaged pier at Bayport Park?
Never mind that the narrative commission chairman Wayne Dukes offered to justify taking the money from the ESL fund was easily debunked, the commission still voted to tap into it for fixing the pier.
The full backstory of the fund is too long and winding to recount in detail here. But its basic lesson is that the cavalier use of this money is wrong for both philosophical and practical reasons.
The fund was created by referendum in 1988, specifically to acquire and preserve natural lands. Tapping into it for other uses not only violates the public trust; it's a perfect recipe for upping voters' already high levels of distrust of government.
Is it any surprise, for example, that voters decisively rejected the county's request for the Penny for Projects sales tax? Of course not. How could voters be sure the money really would go for its advertised use — infrastructure improvements — rather than, say, palatial new offices for commissioners and judges?
Then there's the more immediate problem: The fund is not just lying around gathering dust. The "preserved" part of that intended use has been interpreted to include maintenance of the county's natural areas, the attractions that justify our Adventure Coast brand — Lake Townsen Regional Park, Bayport Park, Linda Pedersen Park and Chinsegut Hill, to name a few.
Including the amount the county pays in staffer salaries and to partners such as the Florida Forest Service, the annual bill comes to nearly $400,000.
County voters decided not to continue contributing to the ESL fund in 2012 — after the commission paired it with another request that almost guaranteed its denial — meaning it has no new funding source.
So when the money is gone, it's gone for good, and no other funding source has been identified to pay for this vital function.
You might argue, as commissioners did, that the work on Hunter's Lake accomplishes this same basic goal: taking care of a natural asset and making it more accessible to users.
Not really. The county lawyer didn't think so. Neither did Sierra Club activist DeeVon Quirolo, who made the inarguable point that dredging destroys natural systems. And to think that vacuuming up the lake bottom will fix Hunter's problems is, literally, a pipe dream. Fertilizer runoff and periodically dipping water levels — caused at least in part by pumping — pretty much ensure the vegetation will return.
Spring Hill homeowners had a choice between well-irrigated, chemically enhanced lawns or healthy lakes. They long ago came down on the side of their little patches of grass.
But if it's too late to do this with lakes and so much of our once-natural land, maybe, at least, we can do it with the natural lands fund: Just leave it alone.