LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Conservation 2020 added 309 acres to the Alva Scrub Preserve last month. The preserve in East Lee County contains a wide array of plant life.
It cost taxpayers $1.7 Million, about what the Lee County Property Appraiser says it's worth. But Charlie Green, the Lee County Clerk of Courts, says many of the 2020 purchases have not been good deals for taxpayers.
"My issue is how much did we pay for what we got? And we paid too much," said Green.
His office released four audits last year critical of 2020 and the Division of County Lands on its buying practices.
The program started in 1996, when the majority of voters in a straw poll said OK to raise taxes on property owners by 50 cents for every thousand dollars in taxable property. The Conservation 2020 Board reviews properties and negotiates prices. But the County Commissioners make the final decision on what to buy.
WINK News went through all 116 conservation purchases. We cross referenced every purchase with the Lee County Property Appraiser's website, which usually assesses at 80% of the market value. We found, in the last 16 years Conservation 2020 has spent $298 Million on properties. Today, the property appraiser lists those properties as being worth $105 Million. That's $170 Million less than what taxpayers paid.
Here's on example: The Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, a 2200-acre area off Six Mile Cypress was bought for nearly $36 Million, yet it's assessed right now for $1.3 Million.
How do commissioners defend that?
Commissioner Ray Judah, and others who support the program, say the private appraisals that were done before the purchase paint a better picture than current market value.
"The appraisals that were done on that particular piece of property were 33, and 39 million dollars respectively," said Judah.
In other words, that's what a developer would have paid, and taxpayers can't expect a discount.
"This property already had a housing development planned for six thousand units," Judah said.
On top of that, like most any homeowner knows, property values are down, and some of these properties were bought during the boom years. Judah says taxpayers have never gotten a bad deal.