BROOKSVILLE — As the County Commission moved this week to put in place a new tax to fund mosquito control operations, one board member pushed to end another longtime levy.
In November 1988, Hernando County voters approved a tax to buy environmentally sensitive lands. The goal was to buy lands that needed to be preserved and possibly use the funds raised to match state land-buying money.
But the projects connected with the sensitive lands fund, including the Peck Sink property, have been frequently criticized by the current County Commission. Chairman James Adkins said again this week that he didn't like seeing money expended at the site and wished the county could just fence it off and leave it alone.
On Tuesday, Commissioner John Druzbick said he wanted to see the sensitive lands fund "gone.'' With 43 percent of the land in Hernando County in public hands, no more was needed, he said. Plus, with the county's plan for new mosquito control funding, having another levy on the books could concern taxpayers, he said.
The commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to establish the new mosquito tax through a special taxing unit. The amount of the tax will be set later this summer when budgets for the new fiscal year are finalized.
County Administrator David Hamilton has recommended that the mosquito control tax equal the same amount that the sensitive lands tax has equalled the last few years. Then the county wouldn't levy the tax for sensitive lands and the overall tax rate would remain a wash.
The current rate for sensitive lands is .0844 mills. That tax rate amounts to 8.4 cents in tax per $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. For the owner of a home valued at $150,000 with the $50,000 homestead exemption, the annual tax to support the new mosquito control fund would be $8.40.
Druzbick said that there is a worry that if the county doesn't do away with the other levy for sensitive lands, some future board might try to charge both the sensitive lands tax and the mosquito control tax.
The idea didn't sit well with one local activist. Janey Baldwin said she voted for the sensitive lands fund and so did many other people. Whether more land was needed or not, she said, it should stay unless there is another referendum to do away with it.
But assistant county attorney Jon Jouben recently explained to the board that there was some confusion about the referendum. The original vote of the people was specifically a .1 mill tax for a bond issue to buy public lands, but that bond issue never happened.
Soon after, the County Commission decided to levy a sensitive lands tax that equaled the same tax rate of .1 mills or 10 cents in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value.
The county has levied that tax ever since then, with the County Commission dropping the amount several years ago when tax rates were cut across the board.
That means that the commission would not have to put the issue back before voters to do away with the sensitive lands tax.
Druzbick said the county could always put the issue on the ballot again in the future if citizens once again say that they want to buy up more sensitive land.
Hamilton said the board could not act on the idea on Tuesday but could do research and bring it back to a future meeting.
Druzbick also supported raising the amount of the mosquito control levy to the original .1 mill the sensitive lands fund was supposed to be. He was worried that the amount the smaller tax rate would generate, which is an estimated $604,700, wasn't enough to adequately fund mosquito control.
He said he wanted to see "bodies back in trucks and spraying.''
Joe Stapf, environmental services director, said the mosquito eradication program cannot be returned to its previous level of service with just $604,700. This week he spoke with officials with mosquito control operations in Citrus County and there were some ideas there on how to generate more revenue for the department.
Specifically he said other counties billed property owners for standing water in the swimming pools of abandoned homes and in old tires where mosquitoes breed. He said he planned to explore those ideas.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes suggested exploring privatizing mosquito control and also wanted Stapf to take the amount the county is offering for funding "go away and come back at the next meeting and tell us what that buys.''
He did not want to see the tax rate up to the .1 mill.
Commissioner Dave Russell agreed Stapf had to work within the county's means. The amount, "might be short of what you want but it's what we've got.''
Stapf reminded the commission that a few years ago, he sought an increase in the amount county property owners pay for their solid waste assessment but was told to live with what funding he had. In response, Stapf gutted his staff and rearranged all his services cutting hours of operation and losing 30 of his staff of 56 in the department.
He told commissioners Tuesday he would work up a plan for mosquito control but "the public might not like the changes.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.