Pepper Ranch, a recent purchase of Collier County's conservation program. / news-press.com file photo
A popular land-purchasing program in Collier County could come off the books next year if commissioners don’t approve a property tax hike on Tuesday.
The similar program in Lee County, Conservation Lands Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee or Conservation 20/20, is also under fire. Commissioners have looked at using money from the fund to plug a budget deficit. Commissioners also are talking about putting a referendum on the ballot to ask voters if they want to continue the property tax-supported program.
A special property tax for Conservation Collier was always supposed to expire at the end of fiscal year 2012-2013, but proponents have asked the Board of County Commissioners to bump up the county property tax rate by 25 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value to support the program for another year.
“Please keep a placeholder in the budget for Conservation Collier,” said Nancy Payton, the Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation during a budget workshop last month.
On Tuesday, commissioners will approve a maximum property tax limit for the 2013-2014 budget and they’ve indicated a staunch opposition to any increases. Extending the tax would require voter approval.
“It was my understanding there is a start and an end, and it’s due to end. I couldn’t support bringing it back to taxpayers,” Commissioner Tom Henning said at the budget workshop.
The commission will have to increase the county’s base tax rate — currently $3.56 per $1,000 of taxable value — for the first time since 2010 to keep funding the program.
That increase translates into about $15 million that isn’t available anywhere else in the budget, according to budget documents.
In the workshop last month, Southwest Florida conservation groups asked the board to keep a budget placeholder for Conservation Collier by raising the maximum property tax limit. The move opens the possibility of maintaining funding for the program, because the tax limit can be brought down, but cannot be raised once set.
Land preservation in western Collier County has been in progress since the area began to develop rapidly late last century. Eastern and southern parts of the county were under federal protection, but the area between Immokalee and the coast, where development was taking off, was not, according to information from the group.
Conservation Collier was conceived in 2002 with the goal of setting land aside before it was built up. That same year, voters approved a 25-cent property tax increase for 10 years by nearly 60 percent. In 2003, Conservation Collier was launched. Voters reapproved the program in 2006, said manager Alexandra Sulecki.
Lee’s program was voted on and approved in 1996. The vote authorized a 50 cents for every $1,000 increase in property taxes. So far the group has set up more than 40 preserves in the county and is still acquiring land.
Conservation 20/20 has a surplus of $65 million. Land acquisitions have not exceeded $2 million over the last four years so there is an opportunity to take from that fund and still maintain a healthy bottom line.
Conservation Collier’s purchasing has been on a smaller scale. It has spent about $104 million on 4,060 acres spread across 19 locations. More than half that total is the Pepper Ranch Preserve, which was purchased in February 2009 for $32.5 million, according to county records.
The economic downturn in 2008 caused property values in the area to drop sharply, derailing further land purchasing plans. The value of existing properties dropped and tax income also fell resulting in a significant loss of revenue.
“We really took a hit,” Sulecki said. “Those two factors combined to hit us hard.”
This spurred the organization to stop buying land in 2010 except for bargain deals, which have to be approved by the commissioners. The remaining purchasing funds were consolidated with a management account focused on working the existing properties. This entails removing invasive species, developing recreational uses for the land and overall upkeep, she said.
Conservation Collier has about $33 million set aside to manage its preserves, which cost an estimated $800,000 per year to maintain, she said.
Another financial burden for the organization happened after the purchase of Pepper Ranch in 2009. The goal was to offset the hefty price tag by obtaining federal wetland mitigation credits from the Army Corps of Engineers. The credits help localities pay for upkeep on preserves and conservation lands.
Shortly after the Pepper Ranch purchase, federal rules changed and the property was no longer eligible for those credits. Now, Conservation Collier is looking to acquire panther habitat credits, which could save them more than $9 million, Sulecki said.
While the Conservation Collier staff doesn’t have a public opinion about possibly coming off the tax roll, Sulecki said she’s happy with the work her organization has done during its 10-year ride.
“We think Conservation Collier has done a great job preparing through the economic downturn and we’re ready to continue doing this important work,” she said.