On Sept. 18, 2013 at their final budget hearing, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners betrayed the public trust.
The Board of Commissioners voted to raid the Conservation 2020 Trust Fund in the 2013-14 fiscal year to balance the budget. Instead of acting responsibly and further reduce expenses or adjust the property tax millage rate, the Commissioners made the ill-advised and short-sighted decision to undermine a uniquely successful program that was designed to conserve our precious land and water resources, enhance property values, and provide open space for public enjoyment and quality of life.
In 1996, the people of Lee County voted to support the Conservation 2020 ballot initiative to purchase and manage environmentally sensitive lands. Recognizing that Lee County was developing at a pace that would eventually eclipse the Florida east coast with greater density and intensity of development, the Lee County community rallied in support of the Conservation 2020 land acquisition program to establish a designated funding source to protect our natural heritage.
Pursuant to the 1996 ballot language and Conservation 2020 enabling ordinance, 10 percent of the funds collected was to be set aside for land management and the balance for land acquisition. The public, in support of the Conservation 2020 program, had every right to believe that funds collected under the designated 0.5 millage rate would be strictly used for purchase and management of environmentally sensitive lands.
In violating the public trust by redirecting Conservation 2020 funds to balance the budget, the Commission has also created an inequity with the municipalities. Conservation 2020 funds are collected county wide and provide an at-large public benefit to incorporated and unincorporated Lee County. The five municipalities within the county are understandably questioning the use of monies collected within their own political boundaries but being used to balance the county budget instead of their intended purpose. The Commission's abdication of their responsibility to oversee the Conservation 2020 program with integrity and honesty will lead to political and legal challenges from the cities and a feeling of abandonment and betrayal by the public at large.
The Commissioners were of the opinion that Conservation 2020 had healthy reserves and, therefore, felt justified in exploiting the Trust Fund. However, the reserves were built up over the past several years due to inaction by the Commission to purchase environmentally sensitive lands that had been prioritized and recommended for purchase by the County Lands Department and the Conservation 2020 Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee. The Commission's decision to defer purchase of environmentally sensitive lands under the Conservation 2020 program was predicated on unsubstantiated accusations by the former Clerk of Courts that the county paid too much for Conservation 2020 lands. The public record demonstrates that the Board of County Commissioners never paid in excess of appraised value as determined by State Certified Land Appraisers for Conservation 2020 lands.
The success of Conservation 2020 over the years is what has contributed to setting Lee County apart from other counties and other regions of the world. Lee County is unique and distinct because over 17 years ago our community realized the importance of providing a balance between the natural and built environment. The investment under Conservation 2020 has strengthened the foundation of our multibillion dollar tourism and real estate industry that relies on a clean and healthy environment, protection of critical drinking water supplies, and sufficient open space to sustain our quality of life.
The public trust should not be so callously disregarded and the Lee County Commissioners should be held accountable for their action.
- Ray Judah is a former Lee County Commissioner