Votes can save land program; restore budget normalcy

Published Oct. 6, 2012

On Nov. 6, voters will consider two local non-binding ballot questions that provide an opportunity to reaffirm a commitment to environmental preservation while simultaneously righting the budget chicanery championed by the Hernando County Commission.

Environmental lands

On the first ballot question, voters can correct a pair of mistakes the County Commission never should have made when it comes to the successful environmental land program.

In the summer of 2011, Commissioner David Russell proposed a way to address complaints about inadequate mosquito spraying while temporarily maintaining a status quo property tax rate.

Russell suggested taking the .1 mill assigned to the county's environmental sensitive lands fund — a 30-year levy approved by voters in 1988 — and use the annual proceeds of about $600,000 to finance mosquito spraying for two years.

Separately, he said, the board should ask voters to consider two ballot questions. One would call for extending the environmental lands tax by two years to make up for the funding diversion. The second referendum would ask voters to consider a new .1 mill tax as permanent financing for a newly created mosquito control taxing district.

The plan went awry, however, when the commission drafted its ballot resolutions five months later. They failed to include the wording "continue to levy'' an environmental land tax even though Russell specifically asked for the language. Instead, the two-year extension referendum contains a ballot summary stating the environmental tax ceased in 2011 and asks if voters want it to resume. That shouldn't be a question. This tax should resume automatically in 2013 since the commission lacked the clear authority to end it. This referendum now has all the appearances of a back-door attempt to kill a successful land-buying program that voters said should remain on the books until 2019.

The environmental land program is too valuable to expire prematurely and today's voters shouldn't allow the commission to sidestep the public intent of 1988. The levy of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value will cost the average residential homeowner just $5.76 in the coming year. The money will preserve land, protect water quality, restore wildlife habitats, and provide nature-based recreational opportunities that are a key part of the county's ecotourism efforts. It would be simply absurd for a county billing itself as the "Nature Coast'' to not do its utmost to protect its natural resources.

The benefits of prior acquisitions and improvements are visible across the county including Linda Pedersen Park, Jenkins Creek, Bayport Park, Cypress Lakes, Lake Townsen, Nobleton Wayside, Fickett Hammock and Peck Sink. Notably, commissioners decided last year to tap the environmental fund to help maintain its park system. Losing the environmentally sensitive land program then means losing the ability to maintain county parks once the previously accumulated money runs out.

Voters shouldn't let that happen. The environmentally sensitive lands program requires a minimal investment, but provides a highly valuable enhancement to Hernando County's quality of life. The Tampa Bay Times recommends voters should say "yes'' to funding the acquisition, management and maintenance of environmentally sensitive lands with the program expiring Sept. 30, 2021.

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Mosquito control

The second ballot question is less convoluted. Voters should reject the separate tax for mosquito spraying which, until 2011, had always been included in the county's general fund.

The commission sought a separate municipal taxing district to make up for their own error in judgment two years ago when they cut money for mosquito spraying by 18 percent then withstood a deluge of 900 complaint calls the following spring because the county was unprepared to handle a burgeoning mosquito population.

Mosquito spraying is a matter of public health, safety and welfare — the basic tenants of government service. Separating it from the general fund is imprudent budgeting and simply a matter of convenience for commissioners who are loath to ask for additional property taxes.

Commissioners recognized previously that establishing separate budget silos for basic services was bad precedent. Otherwise, they would have acquiesced to a separate taxing district for the Hernando Sheriff's Office. Mosquito spraying shouldn't be treated any differently than law enforcement.

The Tampa Bay Times recommends voters say "no'' to the ballot referendum of levying a .1 mill property tax to "fund the provision of mosquito and other pest insect control services.''