Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Opinion

There's still hope for Hernando County lands program

Being in an optimistic post-election mood, I'll concentrate on the phrase "nonbinding."

And on this reaction from incoming county Commissioner Diane Rowden: "I'd be happy to bring it up."

And on the fact that she actually is an incoming commissioner.

And, finally, on the number 37,629.

That's how many votes were cast in favor of a county referendum — one of two nonbinding ones on Tuesday's ballot — asking residents if they wanted to keep a long-standing, tiny assessment that pays for buying and managing environmentally sensitive lands.

No, it didn't pass. But this being a proposed tax in one of the more tax-averse (a.k.a. stingy) communities in a notoriously tax-averse state, it came closer than I'd expected, gaining 48.5 percent of the vote.

And it isn't the only sign that for the first time in years most voters in this county — and state and country — might be thinking of something other than how many pennies they can keep out of government hands.

One other tax, to pay for mosquito control, passed easily. Though some scientists think the untargeted spraying portion of such programs does more to satisfy the public than actually kill disease-carrying pests (tinyurl.com/8orwa8o orgram), the relevant point is this: It's a government service, and people said they are willing to shoulder the burden.

True, voters passed three state constitutional amendments that gave tax breaks to folks who may deserve public help — selected veterans and low-income older people — but who in my opinion already get plenty of assistance. On the other hand, voters blocked the real monster giveaway on the ballot, Amendment 4, which strikes me as just the sort of treasury-draining idea that would have sailed through in, say, 2007.

It's also true that Hernando County's first tea party-type officeholder, Jim Adkins, was re-elected to the County Commission, along with another tight-fisted Republican, Nick Nicholson. But Nicholson can sound pretty reasonable when it comes to the need for services expected of a community of our size, such as a bus system. And then there's Rowden, who despite what her campaign fliers proclaimed in big bold letters, was never a "fiscal conservative" and probably isn't now.

That's okay, because we also need people who understand the concept of public investment. Granted, there may have been one or two other reasons she won Tuesday. But the fact remains that we have somebody in power who realizes the environmentally sensitive lands program has brought much more value to this county than it's taken out.

Commissioners have already zeroed out the sensitive lands assessment and created a mosquito control tax in its place, which basically relieves them of the responsibility of doing anything about the two referendums.

That's true, at least, until next budget season, when, my guess is, they will decide to pay for the maintenance of county-owned natural land and three parks out of the $6 million already in the environmentally sensitive lands fund.

This is the path of least resistance. And because the annual management budget is just a little more than $250,000, the commission can continue to follow it for several years — and probably will unless somebody says something.

Which brings us back to Rowden's pledge to do just that.

So will anyone listen? Will anyone consider that nearly half the voters support an environmentally sensitive lands fund, and that a solid majority voted to create it back in 1988, and that it wasn't supposed to expire for 30 years, and that, I repeat, the vote Tuesday was nonbinding?

Will a couple of other commissioners decide to back Rowden up and keep this program going so, maybe, the county can buy up some land north of Brooksville while the prices are right and create, along with existing properties, one of the largest and most scenic outdoor recreation meccas in Central Florida?

"It's unlikely," said Commissioner David Russell.

Of course it is. But then again, a black man was just elected to a second term as president of the United States, during the deepest economic funk in decades, on the promise of raising some people's taxes.

So, obviously, stranger things have happened.

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