News-Press

January 20, 2015

 

Five things to know about the new Conservation 20/20

Heather Wysocki 

http://www.news-press.com/story/news/local/2015/01/20/five-things-know-new-conservation/22072893/

 

A yearlong conversation is reaching its end.

On Tuesday at a nonvoting workshop, the Lee County Board of Commissioners heard firmer ideas of what an ordinance for its land preservation program, Conservation 20/20, could look like.

The program was created in 1996 after a referendum vote and was continued by subsequent boards. For a year the conversation has shifted not to whether it should continue but how it should look when it does.

There's time to go before Conservation 20/20's new ordinance is set in stone the 20/20 citizen's advisory committee will get a look, and the board will then have to have at least one more conversation before voting.

But based on the points discussed in Tuesday's workshop conversation, here are five things to know about the county's land and water conservation program.

Paying for Conservation 20/20 program wouldn't be based on the tax rate anymore.

When the Conservation 20/20 program began, money to purchase and maintain properties was based on a tax rate voters approved for themselves $4 for every $1,000 of taxable home value would go to buying properties, and $1 would go to maintaining those properties.

In 2013, many residents were upset when the board voted to use that money about $26 million to balance the general fund.

And in 2014, the board voted to add the money for maintenance last year, around $5.6 million to the general fund every year.

If the board votes for the proposal it came up with Tuesday, Conservation 20/20's acquisition fund would be replenished through a reserve fund set at 15 percent of the general fund (this fiscal year, that would equate to about $42.5 million). That reserve would be filled the same way as the regular reserve fund, with surplus funds at end of every year.

"It will require no additional tax rate, no additional anything," from taxpayers, County Manager Roger Desjarlais said. "It's almost like a line-item appropriation."

The Conservation 20/20 acquisition fund would have an amount it can't go below.

Right now, the fund used to buy conservation properties has around $100 million in it. The board didn't set a number Tuesday, but that account will have amounts to stay within.

The citizens advisory committee that oversees Conservation 20/20 recommended a bottom number of $40 million before the account would have to be replenished, but commissioners Tuesday seemed to want it higher, with Commissioner Larry Kiker proposing $80 million. That number will be pinned down before a final vote.

There will be a Conservation 20/20 question on the 2016 ballot.

Earlier in their discussions, commissioners said they wanted to see voters get to have their say on the program's future.

On Tuesday, they didn't sway from that, though there are questions what voters will be asked, exactly, and whether it will be binding or nonbinding. Cities would have to opt in to be on the referendum, or it would only apply to unincorporated areas of Lee.

The board of commissioners' influence on the program could grow.

Under the proposed ordinance, two things would change that would give the board more say.

First, a board would have to have a super-majority or 4-1 vote to make changes to the Conservation 20/20 program.

And second, the program would start allowing for the county whether it be staff, citizens' advisory committee members or county commissioners to approach landowners of properties that might benefit the conservation program.

Eminent domain is off the table, County Attorney Richard Wesch said. The citizen's advisory committee and the board will have to approve offers.

Water quality could play a bigger role in what lands get purchased.

Water projects were a part of the original 1996 document that created Conservation 20/20. But the proposed ordinance expands that.

If the new ordinance goes forward, the county can consider projects for "water management, water quality, water recharge and supply, (and) flood control," according to the proposed ordinance. Money from the acquisition fund can be used for water quality projects on properties if they meet the program's goals.

Some members of the public and board members balked at setting a specific amount that would be used for projects like these, which could include ones that might help with nitrogen loading in the water. However, the citizens advisory committee believed a cap would prevent the fund from being used solely for water projects.