COLLIER COUNTY — Conservation Collier would have to cut back on amenities at its preserves to bridge a projected budget gap, a county report shows.
County figures show the taxpayer-backed program will have a $13.8 million deficit by 2020 in its budget for land management if the county completes its wish list for adding signs, boardwalks, trails and parking.
One proposal under consideration would take $7.3 million from the program’s budget for land acquisition and move it to the management budget.
That plan also would cut the amenities budget roughly in half, from $6.7 million to $3.3 million.
Conservation Collier coordinator Alex Sulecki said the plan is based on assumptions about how much money the program’s tax rate will bring into the program and how much amenities will cost.
“Really what you’re looking at is a worst-case scenario, the most conservative scenario,” Sulecki said.
She said the shortfall doesn’t change the program goal of opening all Conservation Collier preserves to public access, only what that access will include.
For example, instead of fancy boardwalks and paved parking, more preserves might have only seasonal trails and shell parking areas.
“They’ll be fairly rustic, but people will be able to get on these lands and see them,” Sulecki said.
A citizens advisory committee for Conservation Collier is planning to prioritize which preserves should get how much access and how soon.
The $7.3 million transfer would leave $3 million in new revenue coming into the Conservation Collier program for land acquisition before the program sunsets in 2013, according to one projection.
The transfer would leave Conservation Collier short on acquisition money at just the time that the program has a chance to snap up good deals in a weakened real estate market, advisory committee member Tony Pires said.
“To miss opportunities now would be very unfortunate,” he said.
Committee members questioned whether there might be wiggle room in the budget projections to allow more money to be kept for acquisition.
Pires questioned whether program managers overestimated what contractors would charge given the lack of work during the economic downturn.
Committee member Michael Delate pointed to a $2.3 million price tag listed in county documents for amenities at the Gordon River Greenway, a system of trails and boardwalks planned along the river between Golden Gate Parkway and U.S. 41 East.
While the final numbers haven’t been worked out, Conservation Collier looks to be shouldering too much of the cost, Delate said.
“I don’t want to pigeonhole us on this one project,” he said.
Voters approved a tax to pay for Conservation Collier in 2002 and voted in 2006 to extend the program until 2013.
The idea is to have enough money in the program’s land management budget when the tax sunsets in 2013 so it can continue to manage the land into the future with interest revenue and grants. To continue the program, voters would have to again agree to tax themselves 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
The program has been setting aside 15 percent of its revenue for land management, but that has turned out to be not enough.
If the county shifts $7.3 million from acquisition to management, it would amount to 19 percent of the program’s revenues over its 10-year life being used for management.
Besides providing amenities, the management budget also pays for maintenance costs such as removing non-native trees and plants.
Sulecki said program backers warned from the start that more money ought to be set aside for management but did not have hard numbers to back it up.
The county’s $32.6 million deal to buy Pepper Ranch in Immokalee last year brought the budget issue to a head.
This summer, county commissioners suspended most new Conservation Collier purchases until 2011.
Since 2002, the program has spent more than $103 million to buy some 4,000 acres all over Collier County.
Four preserves have been opened to the public: Otter Mound on Marco Island; Cocohatchee Creek Preserve on Immokalee Road; Logan Woods at the corner of Pine Ridge Road and Logan Boulevard, and Freedom Park along Golden Gate Parkway east of Goodlette-Frank Road.