For a group that tip-toed around a recent public safety debate because it didn't want to usurp the will of the voting public, Hernando County commissioners sure are quick to ignore the electorate when it suits their own needs.
Specifically, the commission is wrong to meddle with the county's land preservation program, created after a public vote in 1988, because members want to use that program's tax proceeds to balance their own budget.
This is the same commission that recently took a pass on the future of the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District because members said they didn't want to cross an August 2010 vote that rejected taxing authority for the fire district. Now, ignoring the will of the voters seems just fine if it means ending complaints about the county's lack of mosquito control spraying while keeping a status quo property tax rate.
The short-sighted scheme, hatched originally by Commissioner David Russell, is to take the 8.4 cents of tax assessed for every $1,000 of assessed property value that now finances the county's environmental land acquisition program and use the $605,000 in annual proceeds to pay for mosquito spraying in a newly created special taxing district.
It's a sleight of hand for which the commission should be embarrassed. The rationale offered for the trickery is absurd. Commissioner John Druzbick, for instance, argued that too much land in the county already is off the tax rolls. So much for foresight or trying to maintain Hernando's unspoiled beauty.
This is not to downplay the significance of mosquito control. Protecting the county residents from mosquitoes — and the accompanying potential for the spread of diseases — should be a priority. Yet, the penny-pinching a year ago — when the commission cut funding for spraying by 18 percent — resulted in less service, but a deluge of 900 calls in April from people complaining about the mosquito population. Hence, the push for a new mosquito control taxing district, but without a new tax — just one pilfered from the environmental lands program.
The county's legal staff maintains the environmental land tax proceeds are available for other purposes because the bonds authorized by the 1988 referendum were never issued after the county opted instead to buy land on a pay-as-you-go basis. Try telling that to voters. The commission is trying to circumvent the 1988 vote that set its environmental land program in motion. If Druzbick and others want to kill that program, then let the electorate decide.
Commissioners still must identify millions of dollars in budget cuts by the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, but scrimping on mosquito spraying shouldn't be one of the strategies. Instead, the board also should examine its commitment to the program. In neighboring Pasco County, the mosquito control district — run as a separate agency from county government — levies a property tax more than twice as large as what is being considered here. Hernando's mosquito control effort enjoys greater efficiencies because it is run by its utilities department.
Utilities Director Joe Stapf previously told the board the county needed to either do its spraying program properly or get rid of it. He is right. Mosquito control is worthy of its own investment and commissioners should stop this raid on its environmental lands tax.