It sounded like highway robbery. A critical piece of land needed to extend a highway around Orlando had been appraised at $25-million and $28-million. In typical government fashion, state officials and the local expressway authority had agreed on a price of more than $37-million. All the governor and Cabinet had to do last week was follow the staff recommendation and approve it.
Gov. Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink refused. They said the price was too high, and the deal died on a tie vote. The national economic crisis probably made it easier to block the land purchase for the popular road project. But the governor and the CFO deserve credit for protecting taxpayers from paying a premium price.
That's not to say the road project, a 25-mile link in the beltway around Orlando, is not needed. And a state law passed by the Legislature requires that these 385 undeveloped acres in northwest Orange County be purchased to protect the Wekiva River before the road can be built. But the lawyer who assembled the property in 2006 and 2007 for $22.7-million should not get away with holding up taxpayers now for $37.5-million.
Too often, government gulps and pays a premium for private land for public projects. The argument usually goes that it would cost less to pay now than to negotiate more or go to court to condemn the property. Attorney General Bill McCollum, who along with Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson supported the purchase, made that case last week.
This time, Crist and Sink refused to blink. That made some folks in Orlando unhappy, but it protected Florida taxpayers from extortion.