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A Times Editorial

Environmental group takes the lead


© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002

You'll have to excuse Jennifer Seney if she appears a little anxious these days.

Not just her, either. She and a dozen others are waiting on something important: Proof.

Proof that the county electorate is indeed interested in environmental preservation.

Proof they'd be willing to pay for it.

Proof that they should be asked to do just that in November.

That's Seney's hope, anyway.

Seney, of Quail Hollow, is the hustler behind eLAMP, the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program. By hustler, we mean energized leader, not someone following the color of money. The group's 13-member steering committee includes landowner-turned-developer Doug Conner, attorney Jan McLean, wildlife biologists, environmentalists and horticulturalists.

It is seeking to preserve land in Pasco County and wants to ask voters in November to approve a quarter-mil property tax to finance a 20-year bond issue for land acquisition.

The Pasco County Commission must authorize the ballot initiative. The group asked. Privately. Even volunteered to do a public opinion poll. And commissioners, some of whom contend they are not driven by political considerations, told this grass-roots movement what every citizen wants to hear when they approach their government.

Show us the numbers.

Not, "How can we help?" But, "Share with us the data."

It's the Clintonesque way of governing. Odd, though, I don't recall anyone on the commission telling Lee Cannon to get poll numbers before putting an ill-fated law enforcement MSTU proposal to the voters four years ago.

If it was a gambit intended to make Seney and company go away, it failed. In less than three weeks, she cajoled $9,000 from 75 contributors. They hired a pollster and the telephone calls started May 14. Results are expected at the end of the month and likely will be made public shortly afterward.

Seney is confident the survey will demonstrate public support for the land-buying program.

It seems an inopportune time to be asking for a property tax increase. Commission members have indicated a willingness to increase the gasoline tax 1-cent per gallon for road safety, but no more. They declined to consider a sales tax increase for the November ballot. Property taxes also are expected to jump under a budget proposal to be unveiled over the summer due in part to the higher rates charged for fire protection.

Seney the optimist sees the glass half full. Antidevelopment sentiment is strong and just two weeks ago a pair of county planners departed, suggesting politics played too much of a role in the planning decisions.

She points to a significant difference between eLAMP and the other spending ideas floating around the past few years. The other plans came from government. This one comes from its citizens.

They've already named the referendum, too. It is known as Preserve Pasco! The "!" must have been borrowed from Jeb! and Hillary!

Though Commissioner Steve Simon respects Seney's work ethic and intellect, he is not as respectful of her political prognosis.

"I would be very surprised if there is support for voluntary taxation for that purpose," he said.

Then again, anything is possible. Local pols admitted surprise at the overwhelming support (61 percent) in Manatee County this week for a half-cent sales tax increase for school construction just four years after the same measure failed.

If approved by the Pasco commission, voters will be asked to support the new property tax to acquire environmentally sensitive land for water resources, habitat protection, coastal preservation and to provide for public access and recreation and land management.

That final caveat is key. It also explains why the effort is for a property tax rather than a sales tax, which can only be used for capital purchases. A property tax can be used to hire the staff to manage the land as well. The property to be acquired also must fit specific criteria.

"It can't be because we don't want that pretty pasture down the road to be developed," Seney deadpanned.

Some grumbled that eLAMP's effort will doom any chance for a Penny for Pasco sales tax referendum in two years without netting the same proceeds for multiple purposes.

Tough.

Even if the referendum doesn't make it to the November ballot, eLAMP is providing a valuable lesson from which the commission and others can learn.

The group didn't fence sit. It didn't delay for a better economic forecast. It took the lead.

Seney said, "We're asking the questions the county should be asking anyway."

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