Sunday, February 18, 2018
Politics

Hernando County voters to decide fate of land program funding, mosquito tax

BROOKSVILLE — When Jim King talks about the difficult work of restoring historic habitat in the Cypress Lakes Preserve or the improvements planned for Lake Townsen Preserve, he can't hide his passion.

That's despite the occupational hazards of heat and humidity, chiggers and fire ants.

King, the county's conservation lands specialist, spent about an hour last week with members of the Hernando Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, talking about the two referendum questions Hernando residents will consider on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Showing a series of photos, King extolled the value of the county-owned environmentally sensitive lands that he maintains, from the water-filtering system planned at Peck Sink to the county gopher tortoise recipient site planned at Lake Townsen.

The final slide was a small green plant and the words "The End?"

"Is this really the end of the environmentally sensitive lands program or not?'' King asked. "It's really up to the voters.''

On the November ballot, Hernando voters will be asked whether they want to resume a tax levy to pay for the purchase, management and maintenance of environmentally sensitive lands across the county. The levy, which is capped at one-tenth of a mill, would be in effect through the end of fiscal year 2021.

For the owner of a home valued at $150,000 that receives the full $50,000 homestead exemption, the cost of the levy would be $10 a year.

King explained that it is not known what will happen if the voters reject the tax. With about $5 million in reserve in the sensitive lands fund, the existing county lands can be maintained for a while. Whether those properties would be considered for sale or whether the current reserve could be used for something else might be legal questions to be answered at a later date, he said.

Members of the Native Plant Society voiced their support for the environmentally sensitive lands fund tax levy and agreed to work toward its passage.

In 1988, voters approved the tenth-of-a-mill tax levy for environmentally sensitive lands for 30 years. The backers of the idea were a grass roots group of people who thought at the time that too much of the county was being developed, King explained.

Responding to the public outcry to lower taxes in 2007, the County Commission reduced the sensitive lands fund tax rate to .0844 of a mill, or $8.44 in tax for a homeowner with a home that had a $100,000 taxable value.

Then, when the real estate boom collapsed several years ago, the county found property tax revenues shrinking year after year, and county officials searched for creative ways to cut the budget without closing departments or ending services.

The County Commission stopped acquisition of new land and applied some of the funds already collected to maintain select parks, such as Lake Townsen, Linda Pedersen and Jenkins Creek.

Last year, as revenue in the county's general fund continued to fall, commissioners decided to stop collecting the environmentally sensitive lands tax and instead levy the same amount to pay for mosquito control.

At the time, commissioners also agreed to seek the will of voters.

In addition to answering whether the county should resume the sensitive lands tax, voters will be asked whether they want to keep the mosquito control tax as a separate levy of up to a tenth of a mill. If voters say no, the County Commission will have to choose whether to find about $680,000 elsewhere in the budget to pay to eradicate mosquitoes or simply stop providing the service.

County officials point out that ceasing mosquito control service could be problematic. Late last month, one of the county's sentinel chickens in Brooksville tested positive for West Nile virus, which can be fatal in humans.

"That's a serious public safety concern,'' said County Administrator Len Sossamon.

Finding additional dollars in the budget to fund mosquito control would also prove difficult.

"We're in about a $9 million hole to start with,'' Sossamon said, referring to what officials believe the county will need to find to balance the 2013-14 budget. "That would have to be discussed.''

The county might be able to save a little on the cost of mosquito control because the man who oversaw the program, Dr. Guangye Hu, recently resigned to move to California for family reasons. Sossamon said that a medical doctor is not required to fill the position, just someone with the proper certifications. Hu had earned an annual salary of $70,949 and, with benefits, that came to $90,012.

If the referendum questions are approved by voters, the tax levies would not be put into place until the 2013-14 fiscal year. Both votes are nonbinding on the commission.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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