Hernando commissioners are violating the spirit of a 23-year-old voter referendum to set aside money each year to preserve environmentally sensitive land, but at least they'll try to make up for this cash grab at the end of the decade. In a compromise that is slightly more palatable than earlier raid attempts on the county's environmental land trust fund, Commissioner David Russell suggested Tuesday an idea he promised "might be a good one and furthermore, might be legal.'' At least the commission isn't endorsing law-breaking.
Russell pitched a plan for two separate referendum questions in 2012 and the board agreed unanimously. Voters will be asked whether they want to continue the environmental lands acquisition program, and accompanying property tax, through 2021, a two-year extension of the current expiration date. Additionally, voters will be asked if they are willing to pay an equivalent property tax of 8.4 cents per $1,000 of taxable property to finance mosquito spraying.
As standalone items, both questions have merit. It is the commission's actions leading to the next election that is problematic. Between now and Oct. 1, 2013, the county will suspend the environmental tax and begin charging the separate levy for mosquito spraying.
It is an unwelcome 24-month interruption in the land-buying program at a time when declining property values make acquisitions more affordable. However, Russell's idea is better than his past suggestions to use the environmental tax to maintain county athletic fields or to use the tax permanently for mosquito spraying. At least voters have a final say.
Turning the proverbial pockets inside out is now a common exercise as commissioners seek to reconcile a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. That has led Russell to continually target the environmental lands tax to bail out the general fund. The county's land preservation program, created after a public vote in 1988, accumulates about $605,000 annually. The county's legal staff says the environmental land tax proceeds are available for other purposes because the bonds authorized by the referendum were never issued. Instead, the county buys land on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Now, the commission is trying to make up for its error in judgment a year ago when it cut money for mosquito spraying by 18 percent and then witnessed a deluge of 900 complaint calls in April because the county was unprepared to handle a burgeoning mosquito population. As a result, the commission recently created the a new mosquito control taxing district, but without a financing mechanism. Pilfering from the environmental lands program, even for just two years, allows commissioners to dodge a tough tax-and-spend question until after November 2012, when three commission seats are up for election.
A more responsible plan would be to keep the land-buying program status quo while paying for mosquito spraying through the general fund until the 2012 referendum on financing a mosquito control district can be put to voters.
Regardless of the missing political courage on the commission, there is a positive development here: Voters get a chance to preserve and extend the environmental lands effort at a time when some commissioners scoff at the program's merits.