Springing For Springs

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY FEB 9, 2019

When it comes to preserving natural lands, voters have shown a willingness to tax themselves. Whether it’s a recent voter item passed in November to fund the Legacy Trail or statewide measures bearing the promise of saving more properties as parkland, it’s always proved a surprisingly easy sell to ask voters to take on such a burden.

But lawmakers show far less interest in spending earmarked money as intended, particularly at the state level. Ask supporters of Amendment 1, passed by voters in 2014 with a whopping 75 percent of voters’ support.  In Manatee County, nearly 76 percent of voters supported the measure, and in Sarasota County, more than 78 percent voted in approval.

So it frustrated long-time advocates for the land like Jono Miller, who lamented recently to Sarasota County’s Legislative Delegation that the dollars routinely get spent on matters besides land acquisition. Sewer projects. Risk management projects. Leather seats (well, executive overhead).

He’s happy to see some money come back to the region for projects around the Myakka area, but in general, he feels voters here agreed to buy a greener future that keeps getting put off.  Since Amendment 1 passed and voters agreed to have a third of doc stamp fees designated for land conservation, Sarasota County alone has sent $64.8 million to Tallahassee for Amendment 1 and Manatee County has sent $48.8 million.

Where would he like it spent? Since close to 8 percent of Amendment 1 dollars should go to Florida Springs, he’d like to see lawmakers put the dollars into Warm Mineral Springs and into Little Salt Spring in North Port.

The former happens to be Florida’s hottest and most mineralized spring. It’s attracted Eastern European health-seekers to the region for decades. The latter, meanwhile, has been the site of archeological finds that shed light on the lives of some of Florida’s earliest human inhabitants.

But the truth is Florida officials tend to spend these dollars in areas on North Florida, where the capital happens to sit. Miller said Florida’s southern springs get short shrift.

Of course, land is also a little cheaper in those heavily rural areas where spring dollars more often get spent. But then isn’t getting the power of state coffers behind key acquisitions a big part of why voters approved a statewide tax in the first place? It would be nice to see some serious expenses covered for the preservation of historic and ecologically significant projects in the region.

The threat to dollars, though, isn’t desire but competing needs. Lawmakers often use a new pot of money to plug other parts of the state budget, whether it’s the Sadowski housing trust or funds for buying land. Ironically, lawmakers seem much more reticent to charge new taxes on voters anxious to spend the money whenever asked.

A wealthy county like Sarasota can’t expect every dollar sent to the state to yield a dollar returned in government spending, Miller said, but it would be nice to see some of it come back home.

And Sarasota area voters certainly have made their priorities known when it comes to land acquisition. The Legacy Trail project approved in November will mean $65 million in revenue to complete and connect a public trail system in the works for years. County voters also twice approved environmentally sensitive lands and neighborhood parkland programs.

If all these taxes won such broad and consistent supporters from voters, you would think politicians could see the political capital that would come from actually spending it on facilities the public for years can enjoy.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor to SRQ Media Group.

Photo: Warm Mineral Springs

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