After saying no to a similar proposal in April of 2011, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners is again looking to tap tax dollars earmarked for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands.
This go-around, the elected board is considering taking Conservation 20/20 funds to be collected for the upcoming year - an estimated $26 million -and reallocate it to help make up a shortfall in the general fund for county operations.
The proposal will be considered as part of the commission's two public hearings on next year's budget to be held at 5 p.m. today, Sept. 4, and Sept. 18.
We remain opposed to our elected officials hijacking funds taxpayers were told would be set aside for a specific purpose, in this case land purchases and related maintenance.
As we stated when a similar proposal came up a couple of years ago, the citizen-initiated 20/20 program is one of Lee County's most enduring success stories and it has its roots in the rarest of soils - a voter-approved tax initiative.
The county's website, www.conservation2020.org, provides both a history and updated information on the program:
Concerned that only 10 percent of Lee County's lands had been designated for preservation, a group of residents proposed in 1994 that the county buy target properties and set them aside for future generations.
The group formalized under the Conservation 20/20 name the next year and, in 1996, proffered a proposal to the voters of Lee County - that they agree to tax themselves for the purchase of lands deemed environmentally sensitive.
Voters agreed and a .5 mill tax - 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value - was implemented. Ninety percent of the money raised is allocated for land purchases from willing sellers only; no costly "takings" through eminent domain. Ten percent is set aside for ongoing maintenance and necessary restoration.
The fund currently sits at about $102.5 million.
To date, 117 properties have been acquired, with a 3.2-acre site on Sanibel this week the most recent acquisition. Purchases total some 24,040 acres among 43 preserves throughout the county including multiple preserve areas in Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva, as well as preserves on Fort Myers Beach, Boca Grande and outside Lehigh Acres.
It's a tax initiative that has produced very tangible results for those who fund the program with the vast majority of the properties purchased available for passive public use, such as hiking and bird watching.
Like many government programs, Conservation 20/20 has received its share of criticism - that the county has overpaid for some sites, that not all are exactly "pristine" wild lands, that the program has been carried beyond the voter-OK'd seven-year benchmark without another ballot box initiative.
In Cape Coral, some officials continue to claim that the city has not received its fair share of land purchases and so the Cape should somehow "opt-out" of the program.
Let us point out, however, that there are two prime examples of the program's successful implementation here in the city - the Yucca Pens Preserve and the Yellow Fever Creek Preserve.
The Yucca Pens Preserve is a five-parcel, 231-acre site on the east side of Burnt Store Road in the north Cape purchased for $1.65 million in 1999.
The Yellow Fever Creek Preserve, a two-parcel, 240-acre site off Del Prado Boulevard, also in the north Cape, was purchased for $3.32 million in 2001.
Simply put, taxpayers countywide have gotten ample bang for their buck. That is something that is too often lacking in lots-of-promises/few-results tax programs.
To redirect 20/20 funds now would be a gross breach of trust.
Let us offer one recommendation and one caution.
If our county commission truly believes people don't care about where their 20/20 tax dollars are going, put the program back on the ballot so taxpayers can vote their mind before the funds have been siphoned.
Voters have long memories.
Very long memories.
Asking taxpayers to tax themselves for a specific purpose and then reallocating the money sets not only a poor precedent, it poisons the well for future initiatives. Think a sales tax initiative for health care. Or infrastructure. Or educational facilities.
Voters will remember the "operations" rat hole.
And they will vote accordingly.
Unless and until the voters say otherwise, leave the Conservation 20/20 program alone. It's not a potential cash cow but a program our children - and their children - will benefit from far into the future.
- Eagle editorial