BROOKSVILLE — As the Hernando County Commission continues to struggle with finding a way to pay the bill for mosquito control, another possibility popped up Tuesday.
The commission might consider swallowing a tax rate decrease touted by Gov. Rick Scott as "property tax relief" to fully fund mosquito control functions while also not gutting the county's voter-approved sensitive lands fund.
Commissioners also discussed the possibility of asking voters next year whether they still want to tax themselves to acquire environmentally sensitive lands and whether charging a special tax for controlling mosquitoes is acceptable.
Several weeks ago, the commission approved a new taxing unit to pay for mosquito control, but it didn't determine the amount of the tax levy. County Administrator David Hamilton recommended that the commission charge the same tax rate that is charged for the sensitive lands levy.
Then the commission would not be asked to levy a tax for the sensitive lands fund, which has several million dollars in reserve, making the tax bill for county residents a wash.
That rate — 0.0844 mills, or $8.44 of tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value — would be enough to fund a scaled-down mosquito control operation. Environmental services director Joe Stapf has said a full 0.1 mill is needed to fund the operation at its past level.
Tuesday, several residents suggested that the commission use the roughly 0.2-mill decrease in the state-mandated levy for the Southwest Florida Water Management District to solve its taxing dilemma.
That amount would allow the county to charge the full 0.1 mill rate Stapf said is needed for mosquito control and enable the county to continue to charge the 0.0844 mills for sensitive lands, without property owners seeing an increase in their overall tax rate.
The levy reduction for Swiftmud was due to new legislation that capped the amount water management districts could raise, explained Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix. It was publicized by the governor as "property tax relief,'' she noted.
For residents of Hernando County, who reside in two separate Swiftmud basins, the tax rate to support the district's functions would drop to 0.3928 mills, under early estimates. Last year's rate was 0.5655 for those in the Coastal River Basin and 0.6078 for residents in the Withlacoochee River Basin.
Because the meeting Tuesday was a workshop, commissioners could not vote on what to do next, but they are expected to resume the discussion at their July 19 meeting.
Commission Chairman Jim Adkins said he wasn't comfortable charging the mosquito control tax or eliminating the voter-approved sensitive lands tax without asking voters what they thought. He did note, however, that he always gets calls when the mosquitoes get bad, but he has never received a call from someone asking him to buy more sensitive land.
"I don't think you should go against what the public has said,'' said Frank Trama, a member of the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Committee. "The public has given you direction.''
Paul Furman, chairman of the committee, submitted a three-page letter to commissioners, urging them to maintain the millage for the purchase of sensitive lands. Maintaining the fund was a bargain, he argued, noting that the cost to the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 would be just $8.80 a year.
Furman went on to explain how important a connected network of public lands is to ensure sustainable conservation lands and viable wildlife habitat. And he pointed out the value of ecotourism to the community, citing statewide figures showing that Florida leads the nation with $1 billion of economic impact from non-resident tourism.
"The ESL program represents a long-term investment in the county's future,'' he wrote.
Commissioner Dave Russell suggested that, if commissioners want to take the issue to a vote, they could ask voters during the presidential preference primary early next year, but Commissioner John Druzbick said that wouldn't work.
That likely will be a Republican-only primary and will not bring out a large turnout for an issue that affects all Hernando taxpayers, he said.
"Let's make sure we get the most voters at the time,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.