Volusia Forever & Volusia ECHO
Twenty years ago, Volusia made history as the first county in the nation to tax itself. Citizens voted to approve millage rates to be added to their property tax bills to go towards Volusia Forever (VF) and Volusia ECHO (ECHO), each a pioneering program that improves quality of life by conservation, preservation and green space set aside for residents to use. Residents and visitors alike can benefit from each.
Volusia County Programs Set to Expire in 2021
On February 18, 2020, the Volusia county council hosted a community workshop for citizens to learn more about the programs. The training room at the historic county courthouse was packed with supporters, all wearing green. Each program is set to expire in 2021. There is no question that the programs will be added to the 2020 voter ballots for voters to decide whether to renew. Instead, the questions lie within the implementation of the programs, a framework that has not been modified in decades.
Local Benefits of Volusia Forever
To date, VF is responsible for preserving approximately 65 percent of the county as conservation lands. The program is set up to buy environmentally important land and maintain it in perpetuity. At the workshop, the county council proposed increasing the percentage of the collected funds that goes to land management, not raising the tax rate. Currently, the set aside is 10 percent. Council appeared to be in agreement to raise it to at least 15 percent.
“Volusia Forever needs to be renewed in order to deliver on the original objectives,” explains Melissa Lammers, co-chair of Volusia Forever Steering Committee at the Environmental Council of Volusia and Flagler counties. “Another modification proposed at the workshop was the purchase of lands to act as buffers to conservation areas. These lands, in their current condition, may not qualify for conservation, however, they are vital to protecting our investment in conserved lands by buffering them from encroachment by development.”
Local Benefits of Volusia County ECHO
ECHO provides funding for historical, cultural, educational and outdoor recreation facilities. According to ECHO project history, past funded projects include the Master Trails program, community park improvements across the county, the Marine Discovery Center, the Peabody Auditorium renovation, Old Fort Wall restoration/stabilization, Sports Complex field lighting, boardwalk replacement at Smyrna Dunes Park and many more across all Volusia cities since 2002.
The ECHO fund has a current surplus, approximately $16,000,000 – enough funding for four years of future projects. In the past, the ECHO program has received some criticism for how the county has used the fund. County council members proposed ideas to balance the surplus, but the time limit of the workshop did not allow those to be discussed in any depth. The council members have funded every request that has come through and encourages non-profits to apply for ECHO funding.
“Concerns around the ECHO surplus, especially in an election year, are understandable but we need a deep dive into the reasons for the surplus before we end a program that has provided incredible value,” said Lammers. “The list of projects makes that clear. After speaking with people who have been more closely involved with ECHO, it seems there are some real opportunities to improve the implementation.”
How to Make Your Voice Heard
Voters should be on the lookout for the renewal option on the 2020 ballots. Renewing the programs does not increase taxes. It is a continuation of funding towards Volusia County’s legacy. For more information on these programs, visit Volusia.org.