When Volusia County’s voters cast their ballots in the Nov. 3 general election, they will choose a host of federal, state and local leaders, and they will decide whether to renew the Volusia ECHO and Volusia Forever programs.
“This is all about our children and our future,” former County Council Member Pat Northey said.
Northey is a member of the Volusia ECHO Advisory Committee.
The County Council on June 2 unanimously ratified the ballot propositions that were first approved in 2000.
Each of the ballot measures calls for a special ad valorem tax of 1/5 of a mill, or 20 cents per thousand dollars of taxable value, to fund the outlays. Both the ECHO and Volusia Forever programs, and the tax rates that support them, will sunset at the end of the 2020 calendar year, unless a majority of the county’s electorate chooses to extend them for another 20 years. To be clear, voters could approve one but not the other. Each of the ballot questions stands alone and independent of the other.
The ballot language for both propositions is nearly identical to that of the 2000 general election.
Before the County Council voted unanimously in favor of the Volusia ECHO proposition, as presented, Council Member Deborah Denys suggested amending the measure to include projects that would provide “clean and healthy water” to the mix.
“What is healthy water?” asked County Chair Ed Kelley. “I don’t think that is going to improve the chances of passage.”
Council members recalled, too, that projects for water quality had been included in the campaign for the half-cent local-option sales tax that voters rejected last year.
“I think we should keep it simple,” Council Member Barb Girman said, in support of leaving the ballot language intact.
Council Member Ben Johnson warned adding other categories of projects to ECHO may doom its renewal.
“Keep it simple, stupid,” he said.
Denys agreed to drop her idea, and the Volusia ECHO resolution won on a 7-0 vote, as did the Volusia Forever referendum.
“People like the land-buying program,” Northey said.
DeLeon Springs farmer Gerald Fieser also spoke out in support of Volusia Forever, noting “there is a lot of good farm land left in Volusia County.”
Since its inception, Volusia ECHO has allocated more than $73 million for a total of 215 projects. There was more than $147 million in matching funds from the applicants for the ECHO grants. In addition, the county has devoted $15 million for trails.
As for Volusia Forever, the county has raised and spent $95 million on 38,367 acres that may otherwise have been sold for development.
ECHO is an acronym for Environmental/Cultural/Historic/Outdoor Recreational. The funds raised by the additional property tax are to be spent to acquire, restore, preserve or develop properties that fit one of the categories represented by the letters in ECHO.
To qualify for an ECHO grant, a local government such as the county or a city, or a private nonprofit organization, must provide matching funds for the project. The nine-member Volusia ECHO Advisory Committee reviews the applications for grants and makes recommendations to the County Council, which has the final word on the request.
Volusia Forever denotes the county’s program of purchasing environmentally sensitive, water-recharge or wilderness tracts to shield them from development. Volusia Forever is a local parallel of Florida Forever, a state initiative to purchase and preserve environmental lands in their natural condition.
Volusia Forever has also placed some lands in a conservation easement, meaning the owners may continue farming or timber-harvesting on the tracts, but those properties will not be sold for commercial or residential development.
Sometimes Volusia County partners with state agencies such as the St. Johns River Water Management District or the Department of Environmental Protection to purchase endangered tracts, thus saving some Volusia Forever funds for other acquisitions. Volusia Forever deals only with willing sellers. The program does not use eminent domain to force the sale of properties to the county.
The Volusia ECHO ballot proposition:
VOLUSIA ECHO: ENVIRONMENTAL, CULTURAL, HISTORIC AND OUTDOOR RECREATION PROJECTS TO ENHANCE OUR QUALITY OF LIFE
SHALL VOLUSIA COUNTY CONTINUE TO FUND THE ACQUISITION, RESTORATION, CONSTRUCTION AND IMPROVEMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL, CULTURAL, HISTORIC AND OUTDOOR RECREATION PROJECTS FOR PUBLIC USE, INCLUDING ISSUING BONDS NOT EXCEEDING $40 MILLION BEARING INTEREST NOT EXCEEDING THE MAXIMUM LEGAL RATE, PAYABLE FROM CONTINUATION OF AN EXISTING AD VALOREM TAX NOT EXCEEDING 1/5 MILL LEVIED FOR 20 YEARS, SUBJECT TO FULL PUBLIC DISCLOSURE THROUGH ANNUAL AUDITS?
YES (FOR BONDS) __________
NO (AGAINST BONDS) __________
The Volusia Forever resolution:
VOLUSIA FOREVER: ACQUISITION AND IMPROVEMENT OF ENVIRONMENTALLY SENSITIVE, WATER RESOURCE PROTECTION AND OUTDOOR RECREATION LANDS. SHALL VOLUSIA COUNTY CONTINUE TO FUND THE ACQUISITION AND IMPROVEMENT OF ENVIRONMENTALLY SENSITIVE, WATER RESOURCE PROTECTION, FORESTS AND FARMLANDS AND OUTDOOR RECREATION LANDS AND RELATED PROPERTY INTERESTS FOR CONSERVATION AND RESOURCE-BASED RECREATION, INCLUDING ISSUING BONDS NOT EXCEEDING $60 MILLION, BEARING INTEREST NOT EXCEEDING THE MAXIMUM LEGAL RATE, PAYABLE FROM CONTINUATION OF AN EXISTING AD VALOREM TAX NOT EXCEEDING 1/5 MILL LEVIED FOR 20 YEARS, SUBJECT TO FULL PUBLIC DISCLOSURE THROUGH ANNUAL AUDITS?
YES (FOR BONDS) __________
NO (AGAINST BONDS) __________
Volusia County had another land-acquisition program before Volusia Forever came into being.
A majority of the county’s voters in the 1986 general election approved a $20 million bond issue for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands. The county often partnered with state agencies for the purchases of the properties. The county bought 34 tracts, with a total of 18,500 acres. The bonds were repaid with a 1/4 mill property tax.