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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011 9 years ago

Our View: Put land buying on hold


If the government buying up land in Sarasota County for environmental protection is not a low priority in this economy, nothing is. And it may be a growing risk.

Sarasota County’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program is another victim of the precipitous drop in real estate values. The program was established with voter approval in 1999 and expanded in 2005, assigning a 0.25-mill property tax to fund the program through 2029, capped at $250 million. As such, it is money that cannot be shifted to other purposes.

The drop in the county’s overall tax base from a peak of $62.4 billion in 2007 to $39.5 billion this year has meant that the environmental fund has fallen from generating about $15 million annually to about $10 million. Debt service on $93 million in outstanding bond debt is $8.8 million annually.

That squeeze, and the possibility of further tax base erosion, prompted Moody’s Investor Service and Standard & Poor’s Rating Service to sharply reduce the land program’s rating by four levels. That will mean any future borrowing by the county will be at higher interest rates.

This should be a pretty easy policy call for the County Commission. County staff is doing what environmentalists in government do — along with environmentalist residents on a county advisory committee — looking for ever more land to purchase.

Last summer, the program spent $37 million on thousands of acres of pasture land between the Carlton Memorial Reserve and Myakka State Park. Environmentalists will undoubtedly argue that now is the time to buy with land prices depressed.

But with no expectation of property value increases, and possible further decreases, the commission should put a hold on any further purchases and maintain a cushion for covering current debt. It does not need to deal with an avoidable financial headache.

Plus, the program has already protected 35,000 acres in the county, and that is in addition to 36,000-acre Myakka State Park, Oscar Scherer State Park and others. In fact, well more than one-third of all Sarasota County land is already preserved.

Standard & Poor’s upgraded Florida’s outlook from negative to stable due to the new budget. The state holds a AAA rating, and the newest upgrade means no changes to that are likely. This keeps state borrowing costs low. It’s also known as fiscally responsible governance, and cleaning up from the previous governor’s wet-fingered decision-making. Unfortunately, don’t expect much positive press for Gov. Scott.


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