PHOTO COURTESY CITY OF DELAND
Drone photo of Lake Moore

The only real question in the final deliberations of Volusia County’s $1.9 billion 2023-24 budget was whether the ad valorem levy for the Volusia Forever program would be the maximum millage or the rollback rate.

Any talk of lowering the millage for one or both “Volusia” programs was anathema to many in the audience.

“Please do not vote to roll back Volusia ECHO or Volusia Forever,” David Hartgrove urged the council.

“Take the long view … essential to keeping these programs viable,” Saralee Morrissey said. “The voters overwhelmingly approved that .20 mills.”

“More than two-thirds of us voted for Volusia Forever,” Melissa Lammers said. “Volusia Forever has to have money to approach matching partners. … Please leave the millage as it is.”

“It’s been a program that’s been effective,” Dennis Bayer, a former assistant state attorney who prosecuted environmental crimes, said. “It’s really been a well-supported project. … Development is coming, is coming, is coming.”

Noting the several millions of dollars in Volusia Forever’s savings account, County Council Member David Santiago pressed for the adoption of the rollback millage.

“Inflation has skyrocketed,” he argued. “Many people are starting to look at it and say, ‘How do I live?’”

County staffers said such a reduction in the program’s tax rate would save the average homeowner about $5 per month, and it would result in approximately $900,000 less for Volusia Forever. Despite the seemingly meager savings, Santiago urged tax relief for those in need, such as “the waitress, the person working at Walmart,” and others for whom even $5 a month would help, especially if combined with other savings.

BY THE NUMBERS
$10.6 million
Estimated new revenue from Volusia Forever tax in the coming fiscal year
$7.9 million
Volusia Forever’s fund balance
$18.7 million
Volusia Forever’s projected total funds for buying and caring for publicly owned acreage and also for creating conservation easements

“Five dollars may not mean much to you. Five dollars a month may mean something to someone else,” he told his colleagues. “People are struggling. You all might not be.”

Council Member Matt Reinhart said the Volusia Forever program has broad-based support.

“I have yet to hear one person say, ‘Go to rollback,’” he told his peers.

County Vice Chair Danny Robins repeated an oft-heard point about Volusia Forever.

“Seventy-some-odd percent of the people voted for this,” he said, adding he, too, would back the maximum ad valorem rate.

Although he voiced support for the 1/5 mill levy for both voter-approved programs, Council Member Don Dempsey reminded the council and the audience the tax base is shrinking.

“Every time we make an ECHO purchase, that’s another piece of property off the tax roll,” he said.

When the time for the tax votes came, the council voted unanimously for the general fund levy, with a new nuance. The general fund has been broken down into two parts, the traditional general fund rate of 3.3958 mills, which is the rollback rate, and a new account labeled the Public Safety Fund, with a requested levy of 1.4541 mill. The latter fund is for the Sheriff’s Office alone. The combined millage of both funds equals 4.8499 mills, which was the county’s adopted rate for the general fund last year.

The council first unanimously adopted the general-fund levy, and then unanimously approved the remaining nine other property-tax rates, including the one for the public-safety fund.

Conservation easement 101
A conservation easement allows the owner(s) of the land to retain ownership of it, but the county owns the development rights. Agricultural lands are the most common properties for placing in conservation easements, which allow farming or ranching to continue. Under a conservation easement, the landowner pays taxes on his/her property, but at a reduced rate because the absence of development rights shields it from development.

Protecting lands forever?

Volusia Forever is the county’s voter-approved program of acquiring endangered and environmentally sensitive land to preserve it in its natural state as development pressures increase. Volusia Forever’s funding comes from an add-on property tax of 1/5 of a mill, or 20 cents per thousand dollars of taxable value. The 20-year program was first approved by a majority of the county’s voters in 2000, and it was renewed for another 20 years by a ballot proposition in 2020.

Volusia Forever is not to be confused with Volusia ECHO, a program of acquiring or developing environmental, cultural, historical or outdoor-recreational assets. It is also a voter-approved program whose financing is identical to Volusia Forever. Both the ECHO and the Forever programs garnered landslide support in the 2020 referendums.

Since the inception of Volusia Forever, the levy has been at the maximum 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable value. The rollback rate proposed for the coming fiscal year was 0.1818 mill, or about 2 cents below the highest allowed figure. The ballot proposition, County Council members noted, set 1/5 mill as the maximum for Volusia Forever, meaning the council could set the levy below that number.

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