Barring some unforeseen calamity, Volusia County’s voters will decide eight months from now whether to renew two programs — one to preserve environmentally sensitive lands and the other to pay for cultural projects — that have been in effect since 2001.
Both the conservation initiative, known as Volusia Forever, and the cultural initiative, known as Volusia ECHO, were approved at the polls in 2000. Both are due to expire at the end of the next fiscal year, unless a majority of voters are in favor of extending them for another 20 years.
Each program is funded by a property tax of 1/5 mill, or 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value.
Supporters of renewal want the ballot questions to be short and easy to understand.
“We don’t need to confuse it; we need to keep it simple,” Council Member Barb Girtman said. “Let’s hear from the people.”
The big 2020 election may seem like a long way off, but the County Council is wasting no time. A few notable changes to the programs may be in the offing, starting the effort to purchase and preserve wilderness and water-recharge lands.
“Should the bond amount for Volusia Forever be increased from $40 million to $60 million?” Interim County Attorney Mike Dyer asked the council March 3.
The consensus was yes, noting Volusia Forever has put more than 38,000 undeveloped acres in conservation since its inception. The proposed higher limit is in keeping with the times, according to county officials.
“If you adjusted it by the CPI [Consumer Price Index], it’s roughly $60 million, … not exceeding $60 million,” Volusia County Chief Financial Officer Ryan Ossowski said.
County Chair Ed Kelley called for allowing some Volusia Forever tax revenues — perhaps 15 percent — to be used for managing, maintaining and improving the conservation tracts. Kelley noted the county government has taken about $577,000 from its general fund to care for Volusia Forever lands.
“You have to maintain it,” Kelley said.
Kelley’s colleagues were reluctant to add his idea to the ballot question.
“We don’t want to clutter this,” Council Member Ben Johnson said.
As for Volusia ECHO — ECHO is an acronym for Environmental, Cultural, Historic or Outdoor Recreational projects — the County Council reached a consensus in favor of keeping the spending limit at $40 million.
Still to be decided is whether to allow grant applicants to provide a matching amount of less than the 50 percent now in effect. For example, if the county, a city or a qualified nonprofit organization seeks an ECHO grant of $100,000, the applicant must now have an equal or greater amount earmarked for the project. Johnson suggested lowering the minimum match to 30 percent.
“We have to look at some of our smaller groups,” he said.
“I think this does need to be re-evaluated for some of the smaller groups,” Council Member Billie Wheeler said. “We definitely want skin in the game. We don’t want to give it away free.”
Since its inception, Volusia ECHO has helped fund more than 200 projects, including parks, trails, playgrounds, museums, historic structures and cultural venues.
ECHO grants may now be used only for capital expenses, and County Council members decided to allow the owners of ECHO-funded projects to use some of the grants for maintenance expenses, such as a new roof. The council panned a proposal to allow ECHO grants to be used for operation costs.
“The Cultural Council has operation dollars,” former County Council Member Pat Northey said.
The Cultural Council is an advisory body whose members are appointed by the County Council. The Cultural Council each year recommends which nonprofit groups qualify for grants from the county’s general fund, and the County Council has the final funding decisions. The Cultural Council and its funding process are separate from ECHO.
Northey is a member of the Volusia ECHO Advisory Board. The panel ranks projects for grants and makes funding recommendations to the County Council.
The council agreed to take up the Volusia Forever and ECHO referendums, including settling on the ballot language, at future meetings.