A tight budget is no reason to violate the public trust. A three-person majority on the Hernando Commission correctly reached that conclusion Tuesday, shooting down a ploy championed by Commissioner David Russell to reach into a different public pocket for park maintenance money.
Russell's misguided idea was to use a portion of a 0.10 mill tax to pay for routine upkeep of county parks — costs that the commission already is intending to help cover via proposed park fees. The commission is looking at alternative revenues because it declined a property tax rate increase even though property values continued to significantly decline for a third consecutive year.
Most troubling about Russell's pitch is that the 0.10 mill, or 10 cents for every $1,000 of taxable assessed property value, is earmarked to preserve environmentally sensitive land as determined by voters in a 1988 referendum.
Instead of honoring the voters' intent, Russell grasped at the legal department's interpretation that the 22-year-old referendum was for a bond issue to buy land. These bonds were never issued because the county opted to use the tax revenue on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Even if that questionable interpretation gave the commission legal leeway to spend the money elsewhere, the board majority wisely recognized the perceived chicanery. If they hadn't, then they weren't listening to the 10 speakers — including a former county commissioner, representatives of the Audubon Society and the Nature Coast Conservancy and members of the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands committee — who stood at the podium and objected to this scheme.
Russell is correct when he says circumstances have changed since that 1988 vote. Just in the past four years, voters approved additional tax exemptions and property values went into a free fall. What hasn't changed is a lack of political courage. If Russell wants to test the merit of his theory, then he and the rest of the commission should go back to the voters and ask if money intended to help preserve sensitive green space instead should pay for mowing the lawns and cleaning the restrooms at the ballfields.
If the rest of the commission is a measure of the public sentiment, then the question already has been asked and answered. Russell's motion died when nobody would second it.
Preserving environmentally sensitive land is a noble mission, one the majority of the electorate recognized more than two decades ago. Commissioners Jim Adkins, Rose Rocco and John Druzbick are smart not to shortchange it.