Whether it's the company she keeps, or the job she wants to, Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean has a dizzying capacity to tailor her judgment to what she presumes is the prevailing political wind of the moment. The latest example is Bean's dismissal of the county's environmental land-buying program. The Tampa Tribune quoted Bean as saying the program had served its purpose. "At a time when people are struggling to put food on their tables," Bean said, "do we ask them for more money to keep buying land?"
Well, asking them would be a start. Yet that's not even a step Bean would consider. The other day, she canceled a meeting of a citizens advisory committee, whose purpose was to organize a public poll on whether to extend the land-buying program.
The Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP, dates to 1987. It sets aside a portion of property tax revenue to buy environmentally sensitive land. Since the tax was reauthorized in 1990, the program has acquired nearly 44,000 acres of land — along creeks and rivers, in lowlands and woods that development would irreversibly spoil. The program is one of the county's real success stories. It has helped preserve riverfronts, parkland and shorelines, and rural lifestyles in the fourth-largest community in the nation's fourth-largest state.
But Bean questioned whether voters would support reauthorizing the program, which ends in 2011, in the current, antitax climate. She also diminished the ecological value of land still available, saying "it's land that's been disturbed in some way." Bean should check her notes. The antitax scare is an old canard; skeptics made the same argument in 1990, before the referendum passed with 73 percent of the vote. Her idea that ELAPP served its purpose also doesn't square. The county noted in February, in a memo, that it was "pursuing properties that could exhaust nearly all (the) currently available funding." And looking ahead, the memo states: "ELAPP could use between $200- and $450-million" — a sum requiring reauthorization. Bean also ignores that about 40 percent of the $187-million the county has spent on preservation has come from outside, matching funds.
There should be no question about extending ELAPP. It also makes sense to rebuild the program during this depressed real estate market, when private land owners might be willing to sell worthy properties at better prices. The only debate should be about when to go to the voters, and how ambitious the financing plan should be. Bean undermines that effort by raining on ELAPP. She should stop trying to create wiggle room for her elected commission bosses to backtrack from this commitment.