Log in Subscribe

Analysis: County Bond Referendum

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.


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.