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I’ve tried to help our readers understand how the state of Florida government managed to cut taxes at the state level every year since 2009.

To keep the state budget in balance, the state transferred the costs those taxes used to pay for down to local government. It is a good old-fashioned bait-and-switch, but allows the powers in Tallahassee to look good and claim they are cutting taxes for Floridians.

The result of this state policy is more and more special taxes enacted at the local level to pay for what the state used to pay for. Indigent health care, school construction, the environment – and the list goes on.

This transference of state obligations to the local level has put great strain on local governments to find money to pay for their budgetary issues. In a prior column, I suggested that if readers want a better environment 30 years from now, they could not rely on the state and would have to take matters into their own hands by getting support for a local environmental lands tax.

One of our readers, T., shared more detail on what happened to the environmental lands tax in Polk and how the increasing burden on our local governments affects their behavior.

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“The basics are that a Polk citizen-led referendum occurred in 1994 to levy a .2 mill (20 cents per $1,000 taxable value) to raise money for the purchase and management of environmentally important lands. The original referendum was a grassroots effort.

It had no official support from county officials and some organized opposition from some commissioners. The measure passed in 1999 despite no support from the County Commission.

After it passed commissioners initially opposed hiring any staff to operate the program. That was short lived after news came down that some staffing was typical at all of the existing programs of this sort.

The tax was divided into two parts. One part was for acquisition, but a separate part was set up for management. It created an endowment. The interest from that fund is used to pay for continuing operation of the program.

A committee was appointed with a related technical advisory group to evaluate all proposed purchases to make sure they really had ecological value and could be reasonably managed and opened to the public for passive recreation. They didn’t want the program to simply be a dumping ground for someone’s undevelopable wasteland. The acquisitions were only from willing sellers.

The Polk County Environmental Lands property tax levy didn’t actually go away in 2015 when it expired. When the Environmental Lands tax expired, the County Commission, in some budgetary sleight of hand, simply continued to levy the same amount of tax and to use the proceeds for other stuff.

There has been some talk of trying to renew the tax via another referendum, but the thinking was that it should be the only tax on the ballot, which has been impossible because other local tax referenda involving indigent health care, school construction, and roads have been on the ballot in the meantime. Polk’s charter requires that all tax referenda have to be on the general election ballot.” – T.

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I know I suggested that a grassroots effort at the local level was the way each reader can make a difference on the environment. As this Polk County land tax effort shows – even grassroot efforts sometimes need fertilizer.

We can be disappointed in the actions of the Polk commissioners. On the other hand, they are trying to figure out how to pay for all the costs the state is shifting to them.

Share your thoughts.

David Dunn-Rankin is CEO of D-R Media, which owns the Winter Haven Sun, Four Corners News-Sun and Polk News-Sun in Polk County, as well as newspapers in Highlands, Lake and Sumter counties. He can be reached at david@d-r.media.

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