Analysis: County Bond Referendum

Dennis Maley
On the November ballot, Manatee County residents will be asked to decide, by referendum vote, whether to tax themselves an extra 0.15 mills on their property tax bill to fund the purchase of land in order to preserve natural resources and improve water quality and wildlife habitats.

The referendum reads as follows:

"To finance the acquisition, improvement, and management of land to protect drinking water sources and water quality, preserve fish and wildlife habitat, prevent stormwater runoff pollution, and provide parks, shall Manatee County levy an additional 0.15 mill ad valorem tax and issue general obligation bonds in a total principal amount not exceeding the legal rate, payable from such ad valorem taxes, with annual public audits?"

The referendum was citizen-driven by conservationists concerned that quickly rising land prices and the impact that the rampant development of rural areas has had in terms of reducing the inventory of optimal preservation land would only make it harder to preserve such lands in the future. The citizen activists worked with a national not-for-profit called the Trust for Public Land, which conducted a feasibility study and polled likely voters to demonstrate a public appetite to create a dedicated funding source for such acquisitions.

There is no question that Manatee County would benefit by protecting additional greenspaces from development in order to better manage stormwater runoff and floodwater storage, especially as land development entitlements already in the comprehensive land-use plan continue to be exercised, often with additional density than the land came with and concessions to allow the destruction of wetlands and other critical natural resources, despite the county's own rules often prohibiting it.

If the referendum were to pass, the cost would average around $29 annually for each homeowner based on current appraisals. A monthly contribution of around $1 to $5 a month is indeed a small price to purchase and protect quickly disappearing greenspace. However, there is no denying that this is something of a circumvention around what should be the prescribed process of thoughtfully-enforced sustainable development practices by county commissioners and staff. 

Anyone who is a conservationist surely knows that the county commission's land use actions are directed by the land developers who pay great sums of money to put and keep them in office, where they can routinely ignore the county's own rules and/or approve poorly-conceived land-use concessions. They would also know that the culture of county staff has become one in which determining who among presenters at a county land-use meeting are representing the citizens and who are representing the developers is all but indistinguishable. 

In fact, you'd be forgiven were you to think that the only representation afforded to the interests of existing taxpayers at such meetings occurred during public comment or the time afforded to a land-use attorney sometimes hired by such citizens in order to protect the rights that are being ignored by the elected officials and bureaucrats ostensibly charged with representing them. 

As such, the efforts of this referendum essentially concede that the county is going to continue to follow practices that do not require growth to pay for itself and literally assure that even the primary mechanism that exists to ensure it pays some of its own costs—impact fees—are levied at a reduced rate when they're collected at all. They essentially acknowledge that this current dynamic of special interests setting land-use policy will never change and that the only way commissioners will exercise such foresight is by creating a brand-new dedicated pot of money to do so, in addition to the giant pot the board already administers. 

In such thinking, they are quite likely correct, and this can be seen as a pragmatic approach to an important problem. That said, taxpayers are also quite justified in feeling as though they are being coerced to pay extra for something that practices of good governance should be able to provide at the current cost level. Given that developer investment into maintaining the status quo is only increasing and recent elections show no sign of a near-term redress being exercised at the ballot box, however, there's not a lot of hope that sustainable development practices will come into favor in Manatee County anytime soon.

If we had a thoughtful, unbiased, pragmatic government body making land-use decisions in the best interest of the community and its residents, the idea of setting aside additional money to protect even more critical greenspace would be quite attractive, even if it wouldn't be nearly as necessary. As it stands, this feels more like paying a bribe that acknowledges land-use is still going to be determined by the developers who sponsor election campaigns and this new money will just be one more way they profit when selling one of their land holdings to the taxpayers makes more sense than developing it. 

In the end, it would seem you can either demand more of your elected officials (knowing you are extremely unlikely to get it) or cough up the extra money so that they'll have no choice but to be doing more of what they should be doing already.

Reader Comments
Ann Lyon
OCT 26, 2020  •  Where is all of the money from Doc Stamps that Floridians approved years ago that was supposed to be used for acquiring lands to be used for conservation?? We have lived in Parrish for 34 years and it is horrible to see the loss of giant oak trees and green spaces! You can drive by a field of ancient beautiful oak trees and drive by several days later and they are gone, lying in piles next to a bulldozer. Do County Commissioners ever come over here to see what they are approving? Do they care? We have no parks or trails here to speak of, just house after house, so close that you can sneeze in your home and your neighbor next door says, “Bless you.”
Al Horrigan
OCT 19, 2020  •  I would vote for the measure except there is no provision to keep Neal and Beruff from getting subdivisions approved then selling the land to the county for millions. I will not give the county more money to give to developers. The law should say it’s for unentitled land only! Otherwise this is a developer preferred way to just rip us off. It’s a scam.
Alice Newlon
OCT 19, 2020  •  $29 a year for the average homeowner. Come on people. A tiny price for such a big reward. This is a no brainer to vote yes.
Shannon M
OCT 09, 2020  •  I worry that if it passes (and I hope it does) that the powers that be will see fit to move any other conservation moneys elsewhere, which may be zero but if not I don’t want them to think that is ok! It shouldn’t be us paying to conserve in the first place but the ones who care have to stand up and do something before it’s too late.
Gerold Morrison
OCT 09, 2020  •  Dennis, I agree with your diagnosis (that land-use policies and decision-making in Manatee County have been hijacked by developer money and development interests). But, as a retired environmental scientist, I disagree with your conclusion. Rosalie Shaffer’s comment hits the nail on the head… even if a county commission wanted to practice sustainable development, existing state legislation makes that difficult. In Florida today, one of the few remaining ways to protect environmentally sensitive land from development is to purchase it. That takes money, which the Manatee County Bond Referendum would help to provide. You’re right… in a perfect world we might not need something like this. But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Vote yes on the referendum.
Rosalie Shaffer
OCT 05, 2020  •  Don't blame the county for our having to pay to protect our natural resources. You can blame the Florida legislators. The Bert Harris Act, passed in 1995, provided a means for citizens to seek compensation from the government when regulations burdened their property rights.
Long time resident
OCT 02, 2020  •  I have lived in Sarasota/Manatee counties 49 years now. I moved here when both counties were green and gorgeous. I lived on Siesta key when there were virtually no buildings except one high rise on the north end, Crystal Sands Hotel in the middle and some small cottages dotted along the beach. You could drive the length of Beach Road and see the water all the way down from north to south. Imagine that new comers. Now you can’t see anything except concrete, glass and steel; certainly not the water. I don’t see the purpose of this Bond other than collecting more money from residents that the politicians will find other ways to spend; that will not be spent as intended. The corruption in government in both counties is disgusting and I fear we will all suffer, especially in hurricane season. We are in trouble with our water supply for sure, but also our roads are not sufficient to evacuate our current population when necessary. And a thousand people a day are moving to FL. Politicians are completely corrupt on both sides of the isle and developers should be shouldering ALL of the costs for these necessities NOT the long-time residents.
I Robinson
OCT 01, 2020  •  I am a fairly new resident here so forgive me if I say that I don't understand the purpose of this new tax. I am confused because if conserving wetlands and such is so important that we need to raise more money for the Board to spend why did the Commissioners just approve a new development project for Mr. Beruff when that site has already been determined to be a significant part of the local wetlands projects and wouldn't cost a thing to just leave it all alone?
Paula Clark
SEP 28, 2020  •  Completely agree. How many times does the city/county/state need to hear from voters that we want to preserve as much green space as possible.
Ruth Lawler
SEP 27, 2020  •  Dennis, I agree with all you say, and am frustrated as well that our elected officials are not protecting our public lands nor acquiring enough for conservation and water quality protections. None the less, I will gladly vote yes to pay a small amount in my real estate tax bill to make a step toward more protections on land conservation.
SEP 27, 2020  •  But Dennis, we need more empty strip malls and high-rise $500K condo buildings!