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Diverting money to pay for Hernando County parks is misguided

Ask old-timers to dig through their memories, confirm them with slightly more reliable sources such as newspaper clippings and the minutes of meetings, and there's no doubt what that vote 22 years ago was all about:

"The purchase of environmentally sensitive lands.''

Those were the words of then-Commissioner Len Tria when he first brought up the idea of a referendum at a Hernando County Commission meeting in March 1988. They were repeated in July of that year when the commission agreed to ask residents to approve a small property tax — billed back then as $2.50 a year for the owner of a typical, homesteaded $50,000 home — and again in September when commissioners settled on the referendum's wording.

The ballot question, it's true, stated that the money would be used to back bonds and was labeled as a "bond referendum.''

But as Tria and former County Attorney Bruce Snow remember it, the 53 percent majority vote merely gave the county the right to issue bonds; it didn't require a bond issue to protect the existence of the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Fund.

"The money could be saved, or used to raise $2 million in bonds,'' stated a story in this newspaper two days after the election.

Now, as we've reported, the county wants to use this money — about $400,000 per year after expenses — for an entirely different purpose: maintaining the kind of parks with softball fields or tennis courts, though its real purpose is to save the commissioners the political grief that would come from passing even the tiny tax rate increase needed to cover basic services.

After Commissioner David Russell suggested grabbing future environmentally sensitive lands revenue last month, assistant county attorney Jon Jouben came up with a justification: Because voters approved bonds that were never issued, there's nothing to stop commissioners from passing an ordinance allowing the county to shift the money over to park maintenance, which is what they will consider on Tuesday.

Maybe, legally, the county has that right, though it's certainly no slam dunk because the ballot also clearly stated the tax would be used to buy environmental land and wildlife habitat.

Plus, it's been levied ever since as a separate tax, and the revenue kept in a separate fund, said Snow, who has been hired by longtime civic activist Janey Baldwin to look at challenging the ordinance if it passes.

Mainly, though, this isn't a legal question. It's a fairness question.

And the reason this revenue grab isn't fair, of course, is that there's no doubt how this money was supposed to be spent. It said so right on the ballot.

Spend it elsewhere and you are ignoring most powerful statement in a democracy — a vote of the people. Use it for any other purpose and you spread cynicism. Redirect it for the sake of political convenience and the next time the county asks for a limited, specific tax such as this one, voters will likely tell it to get stuffed.

Though I don't agree, commissioners could argue that we've set aside enough natural land in this county, that this tax never raised enough money to make a difference, that the revenue would be better used to keep up our parks.

Yep, it could argue all of these things. But who should decide if that's right? Only the voters.

Diverting money to pay for Hernando County parks is misguided 08/07/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 2:38pm]
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