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Hillsborough's cash-strapped environmental lands program gets last-minute boost in 2016 budget

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's cash-strained environmental lands program could get a $15 million boost next year.

New bonding for the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, one of several last-minute adjustments to the county's 2016 budget, is expected to pass Thursday without much wrangling from commissioners.

The popular ELAPP program, designed to preserve environmentally sensitive lands, is running dangerously low on funds. There is just $4 million left unallocated from an initial $59.5 million cash infusion.

About 80 percent of voters in 2008 approved up to $200 million in county bonding to support the program.

The money that would be set aside for ELAPP — $15 million to purchase land and $1.3 million for interest on the bonds — would help shore up those reserves, but it comes with strings attached.

Hillsborough commissioners said Thursday at a public hearing that they wanted to see a plan from ELAPP on how the money would be spent and its long-term acquisition strategies.

"The reality is we do not know what land is out there, what land can feasibly be considered for acquisition," Commissioner Ken Hagan said.

Noting the recent rainfall, Commissioner Victor Crist said a premium should be placed on buying lands that will improve drainage and relieve flood-prone areas.

Earlier this summer, Commissioners Stacy White and Les Miller proposed setting aside for ELAPP $15 million from the county's $23 million oil spill settlement with BP. Commissioners instead said they wanted to hold the money in reserve until the 2017 budget.

The new funds for ELAPP are coming out of an additional $114 million added to the budget at the last minute to bring the entire 2016 spending blueprint up to $4.83 billion.

The one-time infusion doesn't fix the fact that the county doesn't have a long-term funding source to support additional borrowing for land purchases.

In the past, ELAPP bonds were supported with additional taxes. But commissioners have balked at raising taxes this time around.

Commissioner Sandy Murman suggested last week that "our ELAPP lands have more recreational properties to them, so we can use them to the benefit of the citizens that are paying for it." Some think there could be revenue opportunities there.

The $114 million added to the budget is coming from several sources, including the BP settlement, and rosier property tax revenue predictions. The county also chose not to move forward with a new south county community center after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a matching grant, freeing up $3 million.

About $6 million of the $114 million will go toward road improvements.

Commissioners will vote on the final budget Thursday at another public hearing. As it stands, the proposed county millage rate in the budget is the same as it was in 2015: 5.7960 mills, or $5.79 for every $1,000 in property value, for Tampa residents (who pay a separate property tax levied by the city); and 10.7547 mills throughout unincorporated Hillsborough County.

If maintained at those levels, it would be the first time in 23 years that the county has not lowered the millage rate, though rising property values mean residents will likely pay more. Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he won't vote for a budget if the rate isn't rolled back.

Higginbotham has proposed a rate decrease countywide of 0.0017 mils, which amounts to a 17-cent savings for every $100,000 in property value.

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.