Hillsborough administrator wrong on land-buying program
Published Friday, April 4, 2008 - St. Petersburg Times
Whether it's the company she keeps, or the job she wants to, Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean has a dizzying capacity to tailor her judgment to what she presumes is the prevailing political wind of the moment. The latest example is Bean's dismissal of the county's environmental land-buying program. The Tampa Tribune quoted Bean as saying the program had served its purpose. "At a time when people are struggling to put food on their tables," Bean said, "do we ask them for more money to keep buying land?"
Well, asking them would be a start. Yet that's not even a step Bean would consider. The other day, she canceled a meeting of a citizens advisory committee, whose purpose was to organize a public poll on whether to extend the land-buying program.
The Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP, dates to 1987. It sets aside a portion of property tax revenue to buy environmentally sensitive land. Since the tax was reauthorized in 1990, the program has acquired nearly 44,000 acres of land along creeks and rivers, in lowlands and woods that development would irreversibly spoil. The program is one of the county's real success stories. It has helped preserve riverfronts, parkland and shorelines, and rural lifestyles in the fourth-largest community in the nation's fourth-largest state.
But Bean questioned whether voters would support reauthorizing the program, which ends in 2011, in the current, antitax climate. She also diminished the ecological value of land still available, saying "it's land that's been disturbed in some way." Bean should check her notes. The antitax scare is an old canard; skeptics made the same argument in 1990, before the referendum passed with 73 percent of the vote. Her idea that ELAPP served its purpose also doesn't square. The county noted in February, in a memo, that it was "pursuing properties that could exhaust nearly all (the) currently available funding." And looking ahead, the memo states: "ELAPP could use between $200- and $450-million" a sum requiring reauthorization. Bean also ignores that about 40 percent of the $187-million the county has spent on preservation has come from outside, matching funds.
There should be no question about extending ELAPP. It also makes sense to rebuild the program during this depressed real estate market, when private land owners might be willing to sell worthy properties at better prices. The only debate should be about when to go to the voters, and how ambitious the financing plan should be. Bean undermines that effort by raining on ELAPP. She should stop trying to create wiggle room for her elected commission bosses to backtrack from this commitment.____________________________
Hillsborough Needs Administrator To Push Hard For ELAPP
The Tampa Tribune - Published: April 5, 2008
Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean insists she supports continuing the county's program to buy environmentally valuable lands.
But she's been strangely reluctant to take the steps necessary to keep the conservation effort going after it sunsets in January 2011.
Supporters would like to hold a voter referendum on extending the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program - or ELAPP - in August, but Bean put a stop to a poll that would have gauged public support.
"We've bought over 48,000 acres," Bean told the Tribune's Mike Salinero. "At a time when people are struggling to put food on their tables, struggling to pay their property taxes, do we ask them for more money to keep buying land?"
That doesn't sound like someone who's enthusiastic about keeping more woodlands, shorelines and river corridors in their natural state.
The poll might have told Bean that the public is more enlightened about the value of land conservation than she thinks. Without question, Hillsborough residents are frustrated with sprawling development, traffic and water shortage problems.
No one is suggesting an increase in the slight levy that funds land preservation. The goal is to get voter approval to extend the program another 10 years. If levied at the full quarter-mill, the program costs about $50 a year for a $225,000 house with a homestead exemption. Since it's levied at .2219 mills now, the figure is only $44.
That's a pittance to pay for preserving the area's rapidly disappearing natural lands and avoiding the high costs - traffic, water shortages, crime, pollution - that taxpayers bear when these tracts are paved over.
Bean also frets that with the county focused on spending more than $500 million on transportation projects, streamlining the budget and other issues, her staff doesn't have time to create a campaign.
"We've got time ... what's the necessity of doing this in August?" she asks. She would prefer to hold the vote in 2010. "We don't want to move too fast. We don't have a team put together. We don't have a strategy."
But why wait for the program to reach its final months before re-upping it? Doesn't good planning require knowledge about future resources?
A team and strategy could be developed if ELAPP were a priority. Citizens groups led prior campaigns. And they didn't face a hard sell, either. Voters have overwhelmingly supported the program in two prior votes.
ELAPP has been a smart deal for taxpayers. It allows the county to maximize its purchasing power by partnering with a state and even a federal program. Over 20 years, the program has spent about $187 million on 43,600 acres in the county, but $76 million - or 40 percent - came from other sources.
Citizens essentially run the program. A committee of volunteers oversees its policies. A group with environmental knowledge helps select sites and a group with real estate expertise helps oversee the negotiations. Public hearings are held throughout what's been a scandal-free process.
The program even helps developers, increasing the value of surrounding lands.
Despite its success, many significant wilderness tracts in Hillsborough remain threatened. The citizens' group has identified another 44,000 acres that should be protected.
Bean seems to want to minimize the need to save these lands by characterizing them as "disturbed." Portions of some have been farmed or ranched. But if being "disturbed" by humans disqualifies a wilderness for preservation, then little of Florida's natural lands, including most of its state parks and the Everglades, would have been saved.
Perhaps Bean is right that with the economy in trouble, now is not the best time for the vote. But the poll she squashed would have made that clear.
No poll is necessary to realize that rapidly urbanizing Hillsborough badly needs a land preservation program - and a county administrator committed to its preservation.