Sunday, February 25, 2018
Editorials

Pasco County land preservation fund an important investment

A pair of Pasco County commissioners shouldn't underestimate the value of preserving environmentally sensitive land. Tuesday, Commissioners Henry Wilson and Jack Mariano questioned the wisdom of earmarking one-fifth of the county's proceeds from a renewed Penny for Pasco sales tax on acquiring green space.

Wilson suggested the county's Environmental Land Acquisition and Management Program had no need for an additional $45 million while Mariano advocated halving the allocation and disbursing $22.5 million extra toward roads or economic development.

It's short-sighted logic and fails to acknowledge the impetus for the start of the land-buying program: A successful legal challenge to the county's long-range land plan in 2000 that highlighted a commission failure to adopt required wildlife protections.

In response, a county program, known by the ELAMP acronym, was devised by a citizens task force that recommended attempting to protect more than 6,000 acres from development. Its original report estimated the cost at roughly $69 million, yet the penny sales tax — approved by voters in 2004 — allocated $36 million, or just over half of the expected expense.

So far, the county has spent more than $13 million to acquire about 1,500 acres. Short-changing the environment over the next decade of the sales tax would threaten to leave the original task less than half accomplished. That is particularly true because of the minimal investment in environmental lands by the Legislature. The next state budget includes just $8 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program.

The commission discussion came about because Pasco voters will be asked in November to extend the sales tax another 10 years. Projected proceeds of $502 million are earmarked for schools, municipal projects, and the county's list of transportation improvements, public safety equipment and environmental preservation. Under the formula, the six cities divide $50 million (10 percent) while the county and school district split the remainder with each getting $226 million.

A new caveat for the next 10 years is to use 20 percent of the county's proceeds, $45 million, for still-undefined economic development efforts. These would be tools for recruiting new businesses and could include financial incentives, workforce development, infrastructure improvements, business incubators or other strategies. Under Mariano's proposal, that business development effort would receive $67.5 million from a renewed Penny for Pasco, or triple what would be set aside for land acquisition.

It's a skewed formula. Commissioners should not ask voters to consider renewing a tax that fails to balance adequately business development and environmental preservation.

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