Tight money, credit may stifle Hillsborough land preservation effort

By Richard Danielson, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Now is the time to buy.

That's what Hillsborough County voters heard in November before deciding to renew a property tax earmarked for purchasing unspoiled land.

With the real estate market in a nosedive, supporters said, the county could scoop up some bargains.

Voters agreed. Nearly 79 percent approved renewing the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP, for another 30 years.

The trouble is, now might not be the time to borrow.

County officials are doing the groundwork for a bond issue to pay for the next phase of the award-winning preservation program.

But county debt management director Michael Merrill said this week a decision on whether to go to the bond market is probably on hold until about September for several reasons.

For one thing, in coming months the county must figure out how to close an expected $110 million shortfall in property tax revenues. Closing that gap could require huge layoffs, program cuts or both.

Taking a first-things-first approach means it makes sense to figure out the big picture and adopt the 2009-10 fiscal year budget before borrowing money for ELAPP, Merrill said.

Then there's the turmoil in the nation's credit markets.

This month, Moody's Investors Service, the nation's top credit rating agency, took the unprecedented step of putting every local government in the country on a negative credit watch. What could follow, Merrill told county commissioners on April 8, are case-by-case drops in local governments' credit ratings.

If that happened to the county government, it would dramatically drive up the cost of borrowing money on the bond market.

For example, Merrill said, a one-notch slip in the county's credit rating would mean that the county would have to pay an extra $40 million to $50 million in interest on a bond issue of $150 million.

"You go down one notch and the whole landscape changes," he said.

County officials had planned to borrow up to $200 million on the bond market and use the ELAPP property tax to pay off the debt over 30 years. The money would be intended for purchases that preserve habitats, provide opportunities for hiking and canoeing, improve water quality, and protect sources of drinking water.

Former County Commissioner Jan Platt, who led last year's ELAPP campaign, said she had not heard about the county's discussions concerning when to go to the bond market, but she was not alarmed.

Platt said she respects Merrill because his conservative approach has secured the county a top credit rating.

"I would place it in his hands when the best time to go out to the bond market would be," she said.

"The voters voted to buy land," Platt added. "They want to get their dollars' worth, and they won't get their dollars' worth if they have to pay super-high interest on the bonds. So if it takes a few months for those interest rates to come down, so be it."

But uncertainty about the bond markets and county budget problems are not the only issues ELAPP's managers have to consider.

Based on the proposed state budget, county officials also expect less money could be available from the Florida Communities Trust to reimburse Hillsborough for part of the cost of buying properties.

Consider, for instance, Lake Dan in Odessa. Late last month, county officials said they hoped the trust would reimburse Hillsborough for $2.6 million of the $17.75 million ELAPP spent last year buying 1,180 acres around the lake. (The county already has received $6.3 million in reimbursement from the trust.)

But now the trust could see its budget slashed to the point where officials could hope for little more than $1 million in reimbursement, said Kurt G. Gremley, the county's ELAPP acquisition manager.

There's also the question of whether agencies like the Southwest Florida Water Management District will have money to participate in preservation purchases as they have done in the past.

"If they're not going to be there, we need to know," Gremley said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

ELAPP numbers

1987 Year created.

44,700 Acres purchased through the program.

44,000 Acres still eligible for purchase.

$12 ELAPP property tax for a homeowner whose tax assessment is $200,000 after homestead exemptions.

The ELAPP tax rate is about 0.06 mills, and a mill equals $1 in tax for every $1,000 in assessed, nonexempt property value.


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