Hernando Commissioner David Russell just can't keep his hands off money intended to preserve environmentally sensitive land.
In the past, he's been unable to persuade his fellow commissioners to use the environmental lands property tax to maintain county parks. This time, he is a proponent of using the tax proceeds to cover a shortfall for mosquito spraying.
Protecting the county's population from mosquitoes - and the accompanying potential for the spread of diseases - should be a priority for a government that considers its most imperative duties to provide public safety and to maintain the health, safety and welfare of its citizenry. To do so, the commission should not rely on such gimmickry as ignoring voter intent. Likewise, it shouldn't rationalize the strategy as permissible because protected land includes wetland areas where mosquitoes can breed, therefore tapping the environmental land fund is fair game.
Currently, 0.10 mill of property tax is earmarked annually to preserve environmentally sensitive land as determined by voters in a 1988 bond referendum. The county's legal staff maintains the tax proceeds are available for other purposes because the bonds were never issued after the county opted instead to buy land on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Certainly, circumstances have changed since that 1988 vote. In the past four years, revenue from the county tax rolls has dipped 28 percent as property values declined and voters approved additional tax exemptions. The county has used spending cuts, one-time revenues and millions of dollars from reserves to balance its general fund the past three years. This year, the commission must identify $5.7 million in additional cuts or new revenue, though commissioners have indicated no willingness to entertain a tax increase. But, trying to circumvent the voters' sentiment is misguided, even in a tight budget year.
To answer complaints that the county trimmed too much from its mosquito control budget, the county is considering a plan to separate mosquito control into a municipal service taxing unit. This is the same strategy a past commission declined to consider for law enforcement. Under one scenario, the mosquito control tax district tax would be levied as a substitute for the environmental lands tax. There would be no net increase on property tax bills, but a huge loss to protecting sensitive land and saving areas of natural beauty around the county.
The county now spends $565,000 on mosquito control, down from $688,000 in past years. To reverse that trend, Utilities Director Joe Stapf figured the 0.10 mill would be palatable because it would cost a typical homeowner about $7.20 annually, or the cost of buying two cans of repellent.
"If we're going to do it, we need to do it right or get rid of it,'' Stapf said of the mosquito control effort.
Indeed. But doing it right shouldn't translate to doing something else wrong.
By all means, the commission should adequately finance an effective mosquito control operation. However, commissioners must refrain from treating a tax earmarked for preserving green space as unencumbered loot waiting to be spent elsewhere.