TAMPA — Despite two years of outcries over property taxes, Hillsborough County commissioners believe voters still may support the county's tax to preserve environmentally valuable land.
They'll find out for sure in November.
Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to ask their lawyers to draft a ballot question about whether to renew the 21-year-old tax that has allowed the county to buy nearly 70 square miles of forests, swamps and beaches.
Voters first approved the tax in 1987, then voted in 1990 to renew it for 20 years. It is set to expire in 2011.
"This is not a new tax," said County Commissioner Jim Norman. "This is an extension of what this community wants to make an investment in."
Supporters of the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program could have waited two years. But Lutz's Jan Smith, acting chairwoman of the ELAPP General Committee, said the program is running out of money.
"I think we now have $17-million that could be spent," Smith said. "It wouldn't take much to wipe that out."
In total, ELAPP has spent nearly $200-million on land. Kurt Gremley, ELAPP's acquisitions manager, said 42 percent of that came from state grants and other matching sources.
Jan Platt, the former county commissioner who helped launch ELAPP, reminded commissioners that the program grabs its best deals when real estate prices are sagging.
"I have a feeling there are a lot more willing sellers right now," she said.
Last week, pollsters commissioned by environmental groups questioned 400 Hillsborough voters. About 49 percent said they would support renewing ELAPP, 28 percent would oppose it and 20 percent were undecided. After being told more about the program's goals, 68 percent expressed support, with 22 percent opposed, said Will Abberger, with the Trust for Public Land, which supports such programs and helped commission the poll.
A "yes" vote in November would allow the county to borrow up to $200-million for ELAPP purchases, and levy a property tax to pay the debt. Gremley said the current tax limit of 0.25 mills would cover that, but probably would be excessive.
"We're probably going to issue less than half of that because I can't spend it that fast," Gremley said.
Sex predators rules
In other business, commissioners voted unanimously to broaden Hillsborough's law requiring sexual predators to stay 300 feet away from places where children gather.
The changes would expand the law to cover offenders who had committed crimes against children, and those who had been committed to treatment centers following their prison terms.
They also would allow the county to enforce the ordinance through court orders.
Commissioner Brian Blair asked the attorneys to draft the toughest language they could.
"I want it so tough that they (offenders) don't want to live here," Blair said.
Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or [email protected]