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Hillsborough County commissioners may snub voter support of buying and preserving environmental lands

TAMPA — Hillsborough County residents voted overwhelmingly last year to support continuing a county program that buys and preserves pristine land.

But county commissioners may not let that happen.

A majority of commissioners said last week they will not support a property tax rate increase under any circumstances this year, with so many people struggling to make ends meet.

"The priority for me is not to have any property tax increase whatsoever," said Commissioner Jim Norman, who led the discussion during a budget workshop Thursday.

Voters passed the extension of the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program by nearly 80 percent in November. The vote gave the county permission to pay for up to $200 million in new land using property tax money.

However, Florida residents statewide had also voted months earlier to support reforms that curb property tax spending, Norman noted. Four other commissioners joined him in stating that they, too, will oppose any millage increase.

County Administrator Pat Bean's budget proposal does include a modest tax rate increase of about 2 cents on every $1,000 in property value. And that's without purchasing any new land.

The county's top budget officer says a further tax rate hike would be needed in order to start buying desired property. The alternative is further scaling back other county programs already facing more than $140 million in cuts to make way for land buying, said county budget director Eric Johnson.

Another option is to delay any land purchases for the next two years in the hope that the economy recovers. But if that happens, the county may have squandered potential bargains available now.

Johnson plans to bring the topic up again to make sure the board understands the implications of refusing to raise the tax rate even modestly.

"We'll do whatever the board wants us to do, but we just want to make sure they understand the consequences," Johnson said.

Commissioners reached Tuesday indicated that there may be some confusion. Those who spoke strongly against millage increases last week said they now want to hear more information about the ramifications for ELAPP.

The county is preparing a package of possible land purchases that could be made through ELAPP to expand on its current 43,000 acres of holdings. It would take on debt in order to make the acquisitions.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he wants to understand why the county takes on debt rather than paying cash.

"There are technical questions I would want to ask," said Sharpe, while restating his opposition to any tax rate increase. "We have time to work through this."

Ditto for Al Higginbotham and Kevin Beckner, who along with Commissioner Rose Ferlita voiced opposition to a millage increase last week.

Beckner left some wiggle room. He said he wants to see the county get "lean and mean" but is also seeking information about all available sources of money to the county that might fill a gap in balancing the budget this year.

Beckner said he knows that some commissioners are dead set against any tax and fee increases.

"I'm not advocating it," he said. "But we need to look at how we get as lean and mean as possible, then go back and look at what hole is left and figure out how to fill that."

Norman has also said he is willing to consider fee increases for programs that he does not consider "basic government services" but that residents say they are willing to support to keep in place.

He said that may free up money to pay for ELAPP purchases.

Jan Smith, a longtime advocate of the ELAPP program who helped lead the effort to extend it, said she understands commissioners' desire not to burden taxpayers further. But she said she also hopes they consider voters' expressed desire to keep the land-buying program alive.

"I would hate to see the board of county commissioners turn down a purchase when the public very vociferously stated what they wanted to be done," Smith said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough County commissioners may snub voter support of buying and preserving environmental lands 06/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 11:44pm]
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