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Hernando commission rejects attempt to move money set aside for environmental land

BROOKSVILLE — The tax money that Hernando County collects each year to buy environmentally sensitive land will not be shifted to pay to maintain county parks.

After listening to residents Tuesday urging them to use the funds for the purpose voters intended when they approved the levy in 1988, the County Commission decided to keep things as they are.

Hernando voters intended the money to be used to save endangered species and preserve habitat and sensitive areas, insisted Mac Davis of the Gulf Coast Conservancy. The county raises about $400,000 each year for this fund.

Changing the use would "violate the public trust, no doubt about it,'' Davis said. The levy was meant for just one purpose, not as a fund "to build more skate parks and pick up dog feces,'' Davis said, referring to a county skateboarding park and a dog park that are facing budget cuts.

Two months ago, faced with possibly having to close parks and lay off park employees, the commission began discussing whether the sensitive lands tax could be used to maintain existing parks.

After a review by the county attorney, staff determined that because the original purpose of the tax — to purchase bonds to acquire property — was never followed through on, the board had the authority to broaden the way they used the funds.

Since the tax was first levied, the county has used the money to help acquire a number of sensitive parcels, including Peck Sink, and Cypress Lake and Fickett Hammock preserves.

Environmentalist Linda Prescott, who serves on the county's environmentally sensitive lands committee, told the board that saving sensitive environmental areas also protects the water resources.

She said that if the county needed money to run county services, she would rather see a "save our parks and libraries'' referendum.

Anthony Palmieri called the county legal staff's justification to allow the change of the fund's use "the spaghetti test,'' as in they threw a dish of spaghetti against a wall to see what stuck.

"This is wrong,'' he said. "It's not what the people originally intended.''

Commissioner Dave Russell called the effort to use the money to help parks and recreation a creative solution to the county's general fund shortfall. Times have changed, he said, and he hoped to save the 16 jobs and keep the county's $60 million investment in parks maintained.

He said it all came down to priorities, and the residents who have been talking to him have told him that they did not want their taxes raised.

Russell made a motion to approve an ordinance that would allow the funds to pay for park maintenance. No commissioner seconded the motion, and the issue died.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Fast facts

In other business

•The County Commission deadlocked on a proposal to build single and multifamily units on an 80-acre parcel on Powell Road adjacent to Hernando Oaks. The plan, by Powell Road Partners LLC, included 12 estate home lots on 59 acres and 252 multifamily units on 21 acres adjacent to the anticipated commercial development at the southern end of the Hernando Oaks subdivision. Commissioners raised questions about compatibility and ended up in a 2-2 vote. They then voted unanimously, 4-0, to table the decision until a meeting when all five commissioners could be there. Jeff Stabins was out of state tending to family business.

• Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. attended a portion of the meeting to clear up some confusion about the judiciary's responsibilities on creating an ankle-monitoring bracelet program for county jail inmates.

Stabins has said on several occasions that the judiciary had failed to implement the cost-saving program and he wanted to take funding from the judicial center reserve to try to solve some of the county's budget woes. Merritt said the judges have been willing to consider the program if it's done within the law and in a way to ensure public security. By statute, he said, judges cannot run the program. The county would have to seek proposals to provide the bracelets.

Merritt said it "defies imagination'' for a commissioner to tie the one issue to the other. He also took issue with some public statements that the judges want a plush, standalone courthouse. They are looking for reasonable space to conduct the business of the court. Commission Chairman John Druzbick assured Merritt that the commission supports the judges.

Hernando commission rejects attempt to move money set aside for environmental land 08/10/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 10, 2010 7:50pm]
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