To the editor:
Last year, the County Commissioners gave most Conservation 2020 Program revenues to developers by redirecting all 2020 funds to the general fund (only Commissioner John Manning dissenting) and then reducing development impact fees by 80 percent (only Commissioner Frank Mann dissenting). What was left over was used to balance the budget. The 2020 Program got nothing - despite the voter referendum creating up the 2020 Program.
This year will not be much different unless voters loudly protest. On Tuesday (June 3), the commissioners instructed the county manager to draw up a draft budget that eliminates 80 percent of the funding for the 2020 Program and dedicates the entire remaining 20 percent to maintenance - leaving nothing for environmentally sensitive land acquisition. They then noted that they may also deem it necessary to reinstate some of that 80 percent to the general fund (much like they did last year) if necessary to balance the budget. In other words, they intend to again close down the entire 2020 acquisition program - using as much of that money as necessary to balance the budget with the remainder providing a property tax decrease. This draft budget again completely repudiates the 1996 voter (non-binding) referendum that lead to the 2020 Program.
I should note that the 2020 Program has some $100 million in its account available for acquisition, but numerous commissioner imposed acquisition moratoriums and recent appointments to the 2020 Committee (mostly anti-environmental extremists or developers) have made it extremely difficult to purchase anything for the last several years (which is how the account accumulated that much money). I don't know whether the 2020 Committee will be able to resume acquisitions until the $100 million is spent (highly doubtful), or whether the commissioners will just also take that money for other purposes (very likely). For the present, the money is idly sitting there, but there are also proposals to redefine the 2020 Program to include flood control and other non-environmental projects, which may well cause those funds to also disappear.
It appears that the commissioners will put a 2020 referendum on the 2016 ballot with the expectation it will fail to pass, which is likely because in the interim it is doubtful they will allow it to function for environmental purposes anyway. So, come 2016, we will be asked to vote on whether to increase real estate taxes to refund and resume a program they had financially raided and rendered moribund. I remind readers that until the last election, the very popular 2020 Program was well known as one of the finest such programs in the country and had preserved some 25,000 acres of environmentally sensitive habitats all over Lee County. Of course, the newly elected 2012 commissioners changed all that.
Meanwhile the commissioners have decided that the 80 percent impact fee reduction (a gift of some $40 million to developers) should continue until at least March 2015 (well after the 2014 elections), with only Commissioner Mann again dissenting.
From the commissioner's point of view, destroying the 2020 Program is necessary to accomplish re-election campaign goals. The commissioners seeking re-election in 2014 and 2016 will probably claim that they heroically eliminated what they call wasteful government spending (2020 Program), while at the same time promoting their view of the economy (which is gifts to developers), and, of course, reducing taxes. They will vigorously pat themselves on the back for all their hard work, falsely claim credit for having saved the economy, collect huge campaign donations from developers, and perhaps thus get re-elected. The upcoming elections are what this budget is all about.
This year's budget is not yet final. Please speak out at the upcoming budget hearings on June 17 and sometime in August, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. And by all means, remember all this every time you cast your ballot.
St James City