Increase taxes to save land?
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Results are in from a poll asking the public about whether to raise property taxes to buy environmentally sensitive land.
Although poll sponsors won't give the outcome until a meeting next week with the County Commission, they hinted they still have work to do.
"Generally there's support for a (protection) program," said Jennifer Seney of eLAMP, or Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program.
"But that doesn't mean a referendum would be successful if it went to the polls tomorrow," Seney said. "It shows there's an education gap."
The group plans to present its findings to the County Commission during the commission's meeting at 6:30 p.m. July 9, at the West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey.
Group members hope to talk to commissioners about the possibility of a future ballot referendum on the issue, Seney said. The referendum would ask voters if they support an increase in property taxes to acquire sensitive land for water resources, to protect endangered species, for coastal preservation and for public recreation, Seney said.
Depending on commissioners' reactions and the development of other alternatives, the group might not make a formal request for a ballot question just yet, she said. But eventually, it might come to that.
"It's going to have to go on the ballot whether it's now or later," Seney said. "Government won't do this unless they get a mandate from the people."
ELAMP paid $8,200 to the company Kitchens Group of Orlando to conduct the poll in May, she said. Telephone interviews were done with a random sample of 400 registered Pasco voters. The purpose, Seney said, was to gauge public opinion for a program financed by property taxes and to see if voters found it a good means to manage growth and natural resources.
The group formed in February because members became impatient with the county for not implementing an environmental land protection program. The county was challenged by a group of citizens in 1999 for failing to adopt an environment protection program as outlined 10 years earlier in the goals of the county's comprehensive plan.
The challenge resulted in a wildlife habitat study released earlier this year, but still no protection program.
County commissioners contacted Monday had mixed views on a referendum.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri said she would be open to the group's proposal to get input from voters.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said he wanted to see more data from the group before deciding about a referendum. But he added he was against countywide property tax increases for a drain on the environment that some residents blame on newcomers.
He wants to consider a plan being prepared by county staff members that could include the purchase of environmental lands along with space for parks and libraries. Those purchases would come through a special tax on property owners only in Wesley Chapel and other parts of central Pasco.
Commissioner Peter Altman said he is not sure now is the time for a referendum on a property tax for environmental lands, considering the county's overwhelming needs in other areas, such as education and transportation. But if anything is done, the whole county needs to support it, not just central Pasco, he said.
"I'm not inclined to start breaking up the county to let each part deal with its own problems," he said. "I think if there's an interest on the County Commission to pursue this, it should be a countywide issue."
County Commissioner Steve Simon declined to comment on the referendum until he sees the group's information, and Commissioner Ann Hildebrand could not be reached Monday.
-- Saundra Amrhein covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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