First approved in 2000, the program was renewed in 2020 when 72 percent of voters said yes to continuing it.
ECHO is authorized to collect up to one-fifth of a mill in property taxes, or about 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value.
The ECHO tax now yields approximately $8 million per year, most of which will be spent on projects. However, beginning in the 2021-22 fiscal year, 3 percent of the ECHO revenues — about $250,000 — will be dedicated to administration, including the pay of two employees.
The other change to the program will dedicate $1.5 million per year — up from $1 million — to building trails.
County Chair Jef f Brower wondered about the money for personnel.
“We’re trying to control the costs and the growth of government,” he said. “My preference would be that the program would be self-sufficient. … Are we growing government?”
Before now, staffers in the county’s Community Services Department have managed ECHO, and their salaries and office expenses were paid out of the general fund. Council members spoke out in favor of the change to using ECHO money.
“This thing should be self-sufficient,” Council Member Ben Johnson said. “We can’t be adding to the general fund. … This way, we have people who are responsible for the program.”
“I like the idea of the fund being self-sufficient,” Brower said. “What I don’t like is taking money out of projects, but the taxpayers are paying one way or another.”
“If we were ever taking from projects, we could revisit this,” County Manager George Recktenwald said.
The County Council voted unanimously to allocate 3 percent of the ECHO tax dollars for staffing for the program. One of the two staff members now handling the job will shift to ECHO duties full time, while the second employee shifts fully to non-ECHO duties. The second ECHO worker will be a new hire.
The resolution notes “the responsibility of managing the ECHO program requires employment of a full-time ECHO Activity Project Manager to oversee and manage the ECHO program and an ECHO Administrative Coordinator II responsible for the daily ECHO program administrative tasks.”
Also, the council voted to raise the amount of tax revenues devoted to trails from $1 million to $1.5 million per year.
Since the inception of ECHO in 2001, Volusia County has built more than 60 miles of paved trails. In many instances, the county has received money from other sources to supplement the ECHO funds. Brower suggested the county work closely with the cities on laying out trail routes, which, he said, could “connect with parks.”
Council Member Heather Post emphasized the importance of connectivity in planning trails.
“Everybody wants to know what the plan is,” Post said. “How do we get from Point A to Point B?”
County Parks and Recreation Director Tim Baylie said trail plans are still flexible, and he was willing to get public input.
“We could reach out and say, ‘Where do you think the alignment ought to be?’” he said.
A nine-member panel, the Volusia ECHO Advisory Committee, appointed by the County Council, reviews applications for ECHO funding and makes recommendations to the County Council for actual decisions.
The Volusia ECHO and Volusia Forever programs were created at the same time.
Like ECHO, Forever is a voter-approved effort, but Forever funds are used to preserve endangered and environmentally sensitive land. The tax levy, as for ECHO, is up to one-fifth of a mill per year.
Also, like ECHO, Volusia Forever was a 20- year program approved by a majority of the voters in the 2000 general election, and it, too, was renewed in 2020.
While most of the land conservation has been accomplished by purchasing property offered by willing sellers, Volusia Forever has also set up conservation easements on privately owned land.