Hernando commissioners are in danger of casting themselves as deadbeats, unwilling to pay back a short-term loan from the public trust. Five months ago, commissioners said they would ask voters to extend the environmental land program for two years to compensate for diverting the property tax proceeds (roughly $600,000 annually) to pay for bug spraying. The promised referendum helped sell the public on the dubious accounting ploy to keep mosquito control operating without paying for it from the county's general fund property tax.
Except on Tuesday, commissioners are scheduled to consider a proposed referendum for the 2012 ballot that fails to extend the land-buying program and accompanying property tax through 2021 as pledged. Instead, the ballot summary and question tell voters the 0.1 mill (10 cents of tax for every $1,000 of property value) ceased in 2011 and asks if it should resume.
The proposed referendum can be construed as a poorly disguised attempt to kill the environmental land tax permanently even though voters approved the 30-year levy in 1988. Here is exactly what commissioners voted upon in July:
Take the 0.1 mill assigned to the environmental sensitive lands fund and move it to a newly created mosquito control taxing district for two years. Ask voters to extend the environmental tax for two years to make up for the diverted funding and, in a separate ballot question, ask voters to permanently pay for mosquito spraying through the new MSTU.
Commissioners approved the idea 4-1 with only Commissioner Wayne Dukes dissenting. During budget hearings in September, Dukes again refused to acquiesce to the maneuver and later explained his logic:
"My concern is at the end of the day they will both be put on the ballot and both approved, which will generate a tax increase.''
Dukes' fear of direct democracy superseding his own tea-flavored fiscal conservatism shouldn't play into these ballot questions. We trust it was commissioners' faulty memories, and not a devious attempt to circumvent their own promises from July, that led to this faulty ballot proposal.
Commissioners must honor their commitment. Voters must be asked to extend the ongoing environmental lands tax until 2021. Separately, voters must be asked if they will finance mosquito spraying through a taxing unit. (The commission is expected to consider that ballot language sometime early next year.) The language must be clear, concise and accurate.
Commissioners, under the leadership of David Russell, already usurped the will of the voting public by switching the sensitive lands tax for another purpose. Russell and the rest of the commission now must ensure they do not compound their indifference to the electorate by using misleading ballot language to confuse the voting public.