Hernando County commissioners punted environmental stewardship this week, ignoring a pitch from their volunteer sensitive lands committee to renew funding for land conservation. The insulting message to the committee? Come see us next year. Left unsaid? Don't hold your breath.
It's short-sighted. The land-buying and management program is a highly valuable effort that should compliment the county's renewed desire to capitalize on eco-tourism. Instead, commissioners didn't even discuss resuming the $600,000 annual allocation for sensitive lands that ended in 2011. When Commissioner Diane Rowden broached the topic, Chairman Wayne Dukes told her to put it on an agenda for next year, effectively ending one of the volunteers' funding suggestions: Dedicating a portion of a proposed new, higher sales tax for protecting land acquisition.
The request and the commission's indifference highlights a shortcoming of the ongoing push for a sales tax increase: The county's top-down wish list from the business community focused on transportation and economic development without taking into account environmental, public safety or other concerns. Voters will decide the fate of the sales tax in November, but this week, volunteers repeatedly reminded commissioners of the success of the neighboring Penny for Pasco sales tax that dedicates tens of millions of dollars to acquire and manage a similar environmental lands program.
Hernando initially was in front of Pasco on preserving green space. Hernando voters, in 1988, approved a 30-year property tax for its Environmentally Sensitive Lands program. The tax rate, capped at 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, produced approximately $600,000 in the 2011 budget year, the final year commissioners funded the program.
Over the previous 23 years, the dollars helped save and maintain seven preserves and parks in the county, including some deals consummated in partnership with state and federal agencies.
Benefits include attracting eco-tourism-based commerce, higher property values of nearby land, increased recreation, fostering quality growth and development and protecting wildlife, archaeological history and the county's scenic beauty.
Despite the lengthy list of attributes, the program has suffered in recent years from commissioners hostile to preserving additional land.
Three summers ago, Commissioner David Russell led the charge to ignore the will of the voters and persuaded commissioners to use the money for mosquito spraying. That followed earlier budget trickery in which commissioners raided the environmental lands account of $230,000 annually to pay for park maintenance.
Finally, voters, considering a poorly worded referendum crafted by commissioners, ended the program in 2012, instead of continuing it two extra years to make up for the earlier reallocation for mosquito control.
It's a sad record for a county that promotes itself as the Nature Coast. Unfortunately, commissioners don't plan to address it until 2015. If then.