TAMPA — Hillsborough County voters have one more choice to make on November's already weighty general election ballot.
Commissioners on Wednesday agreed to ask voters whether they support extending a program that uses property tax dollars to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive land for posterity.
A public vote in favor of the proposal would enable the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program to buy another $200-million worth of land.
"Absolutely," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita. "It's my pleasure to call for a referendum."
Commissioners voted 5-0 to support placing the question on November's ballot, with commissioners Ken Hagan and Brian Blair absent.
ELAPP has proved very popular since it was created in the late 1980s, though its approval by voters unhappy with rising property taxes is not certain.
Through the past two decades, The county has acquired more than 43,000 acres considered important as wetlands and other wildlife habitat, as well as places to hike and play.
"I'm sure future generations of Hillsborough County residents will be indebted to you," said Dick Eckenrod, executive director of the Tampa Bay Conservancy.
Hillsborough created ELAPP through a referendum in 1987, then voters extended it in 1990, both by margins greater than 70 percent. It is set to expire in 2011.
Backers of the latest extension, calling themselves "Hillsborough County Land Preservation, a Citizens Committee,'' announced two iconic co-chairmen for their campaign to promote a favorable vote. Former Gov. Bob Martinez, who championed similar programs at the state level, and former Commissioner Jan Platt, who helped launch the creation of ELAPP, will lead the effort.
"It's about saving lands in the community that are special for our children and our grandchildren," Platt said.
The November ballot will include the presidential race and scores of other political choices, including whether Hillsborough County voters want to have an elected county mayor.
Martinez said he anticipates that he and Platt will speak at community functions to educate voters about the ELAPP question, which will appear near the bottom of the ballot.
"Certainly we both want to see it pass and, based on time available, we'll do all we can to see that it passes," Martinez said.
Voters last time agreed to set aside up to a quarter-mill in property taxes to make debt payments on the purchase of up to $100-million worth of land over 20 years. A quarter-mill is a 25 cent assessment on every $1,000 of taxable property.
However, because of the way it was structured, taking on new loans as the program aged became impractical. The county could not take on new debt in later years because time to pay it off would run out.
So the latest proposal does not place a time limit on when the county must spend the $200-million. It only specifies that any loan to purchase property for preservation must be paid off within 30 years.
The county has identified more than 40,000 acres that still could be purchased for preservation.
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.