BROOKSVILLE — Newly elected county Commissioner Jim Adkins introduced a plan Wednesday that he says would turn around the county's slumping economy.
The hook for participants: gift cards.
On the hook for $2.5 million: county taxpayers.
The goal would be to entice home buyers into purchasing foreclosed properties. At the same time, gift cards the buyers receive would infuse the local economy with cash.
"These are trying times for Hernando County businesses and government,'' Adkins said.
His plan was authored and presented by government critic Blaise Ingoglia, the man behind the 2007 Government Gone Wild seminars. The gift cards would total as much as $5,000 for each home buyer. First-time buyers would get the largest reimbursements.
The program would be geared for primary or second homes, but not investors. The program could not be used for properties receiving funding assistance through various federal programs.
The gift cards would be used to make purchases in Hernando County, Ingoglia explained. Although he acknowledged the county can't compel people to use the money in Hernando, officials can suggest it strongly, he said. And the proposal includes an aggressive marketing campaign. Among other things, it would target people outside Hernando, hoping they will help draw down the large stock of foreclosed homes in the county.
The plan suggests funding the program by taking $2.5 million out of the county's reserves over a two-year period.
Ingoglia, a local homebuilder, said reducing the inventory of foreclosed homes would bolster the economy by providing work for real estate professionals, banks, mortgage companies and trades people hired to fix up the homes.
He said the economic impact of the program would be between $5 million and $8 million.
Many details of how the program would work remained sketchy Wednesday. Other commissioners expressed interest in the idea and referred the program, known as the Comprehensive Plan for Recovery, to the commission's newly formed standing committee on economic development. The first meeting of that group is March 17.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell said that the committee was a good place to have a full discussion of the many issues the proposal raises.
County Administrator David Hamilton said the committee setting would allow county officials to examine such issues as whether existing policies and programs on both the state and local levels are working, whether the gift cards will truly help solve the current economic problems and whether taking money from county reserves at a time when revenues are down is feasible.
Hernando County has been hit hard on various fronts economically, including soaring unemployment and the continuing foreclosure crisis.
In 2008 alone, the clerk of the circuit court recorded 3,256 foreclosures that were filed. In the first two months of this year, there have been another 374.
Officials have expressed concerns about the abandoned properties dragging down both the appearance and property values in neighborhoods across the county.
The program got mixed reviews from residents in the audience. Some said more down-payment assistance was needed rather than gift cards; others praised the idea as a good start while the county waits to hear if it will get any federal help through the president's stimulus plan.
"We can't wait for the feds,'' said Ana Trinque, who heads the county's Republican Executive Committee. The first stimulus package, she said "never made it to Hernando County.''
While she said she thought the proposal was well intentioned, Lisa Hammond of the county's Planning and Zoning Commission, said that if she got one of the gift cards, she would likely spend it online, pointing out that there would be no guarantee the money would come back into the cash registers of local businesses.
Said activist Janey Baldwin: "It's the first time I've ever heard someone suggest a Ponzi scheme to this County Commission. It doesn't make any sense to me.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.