BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners this week began setting spending priorities, including projects they want to pay for before the current fiscal year ends. They also established a controversial new policy on how to use the more than $4 million left in the county's environmentally sensitive lands fund.
Commissioners tentatively approved spending $100,000 from this year's reserve to demolish unsafe structures, money that had to be cut earlier in the year when other priorities took center stage.
Having heard just last week about liability questions raised by their insurance carrier over public playgrounds at Alfred A. McKethan and Lake Townsen Regional parks, commissioners also gave initial approval to spend $100,000 and $50,000, respectively, to replace equipment at both parks.
In addition, another $240,000 for new election equipment for Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson was approved, as was $35,000 for a new air conditioner at the Lake House in Spring Hill and $12,000 for ice machines for park concession stands in various locations.
While those expenditures were pitched strongly by various departments during last week's budget workshop, and all will be formalized at a future meeting, it was future spending from the county's environmentally sensitive lands fund that generated the most discussion. At the commission's request, the county's Planning Department wrote a new policy that broadens how the funds may be spent, a policy establishing that the commission has the final say on the fund.
Commissioners approved the policy enthusiastically and unanimously Tuesday, saying there are many needs for the money. Commissioner Nick Nicholson said the policy would help the county fix parks that have needed maintenance; enhance environmental resources; attract businesses, tourism and jobs, and "bring more tax dollars and more money ... into the county.''
By consensus, commissioners said they wanted a portion of the money set aside to maintain existing environmentally sensitive lands, but also discussed taking money from the fund for other projects that would not have been permissible under the previous rules.
Some residents maintained that the new policy goes beyond the narrow uses allowed when voters approved a small tax rate in 1988 to buy and maintain environmentally sensitive lands. The tax was to stay on the books for 30 years, but several years ago, commissioners spent some of the money on mosquito control, then asked voters to reapprove the sensitive lands fund, which they did not.
"It's a violation of the voters' trust,'' argued Brooksville resident DeeVon Quirolo, who represents several conservation organizations.
She noted that a county attorney told commissioners they could not spend any of the money to dredge around the boat launch at Hunters Lake in Spring Hill, a project for which the commission now plans to spend some of the money.
"Clearly that's why you're seeking to broaden your authority,'' Quirolo said.
Quirolo also said plans to use environmentally sensitive lands money for a reef project was "a travesty.''
She said the dollars had a very specific purpose and were not supposed to be used for commissioners' pet projects.
"This is an end run around this very important program,'' she said.
Brooksville resident Rosemarie Grubba also was opposed to the move.
"We are concerned that the will of the people will be overridden by perhaps some less-than-worthy motives,'' Grubba said.
After the tax expired, she said, the remaining money was to be used to maintain the existing lands purchased, "not to go off further and come up with schemes to spend this money down. And, to the general public, that's exactly what it looks like. You want to spend the money on all of the goodies that you want personally rather than what the people want that money spent on.
''It does not look good, gentlemen.''