Published: October 29, 2010
TAMPA - You probably know most of the candidates running for federal and state offices next Tuesday, but there's one local race that has many voters scratching their heads.
Eight candidates are competing for two seats on the governing board for Hillsborough County's Soil and Water Conservation districts. It's a four-year unpaid term on a quasi-governmental agency with little or no oversight and virtually no enforcement authority.
A relic of the Dust Bowl era, conservation districts were set up across the country in the 1930's by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create jobs, encourage soil and water conservation and serve as conduits for federal and state agricultural subsidies.
Over the years, that mission has been reduced to mostly educational outreach.
Hillsborough County has five soil and water conservation districts, established by the Florida Legislature in 1946, which receive about $250,000 a year from the county.
Most of that funding pays the salaries and benefits of three full-time staff, including two engineers who conduct irrigation audits for farmers, and educational outreach such as the annual "environmental Olympics" and a poster contest for public school students.
That has made the volunteer board a target for critics of wasteful government spending.
"It's a total waste of taxpayer dollars," says A.J. Brent, one of five candidates running for the District 5 seat on the soil and water conservation board in the Nov. 2 election.
Brent said county agencies such as the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Tampa Bay Water operate similar conservation programs and many landscaping companies offer cheap irrigation audits.
If elected, he wants to eliminate its funding.
"Our property taxes shouldn't be used to judge poster contests," Brent said.
Anita Stewart, who is also running for the District 5 seat, agrees that the money isn't being spent properly, but thinks the agency can still play a vital role in the county, such as finding out "what is happening with those sinkholes caused by farmers in Eastern Hillsborough."
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