County anticipating a budget crunch

Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 10:21 p.m.
A bleak financial future looming for Alachua County will set the tone in 2003 as elected officials try to scrape together enough money to repair crumbling roads and build new ones, get a new courthouse up and running and establish a viable program to bring better-paying jobs to the area.
By some estimates, the county faces a $9.1 million budget shortfall in five years - much of that coming from lost revenue from annexations and a state takeover of court-related costs beginning in the county's fiscal 2004 budget.
The predicament for counties is made worse since voters passed several education initiatives last fall that likely will eat into the state budget. The Florida Association of Counties has warned county officials that the state is headed for a "fiscal train wreck."
Further expected revenue losses at the state level make the county's financial prospects so pitiful that some social or court services programs could be in jeopardy and new taxes and fees could be considered. No specific plans have been developed thus far. Everything will be on the table Jan. 9-10 when the County Commission meets at Poe Springs to set its goals and plans for the year.
"We must discuss finances and our service delivery systems this year," County Manager Randy Reid said. "It will be difficult to balance the budget this time without changes in our priorities."
Complicating the county's decisions is the fact that response times for ambulances and firetrucks are growing longer. With an extremely tight budget, the County Commission last year denied a request by Alachua County Fire Chief Will May for two new ambulances and crews to run them.
At the same time, the County Commission has yet to make what could turn out to be an unpopular decision of raising revenue to pay for a backlog of roads and improvements to the tune of more than $100 million. A four-pronged funding mechanism, including property taxes, impact fees, a 5-cent increase in the gas tax and an extra penny sales tax has been suggested to help pay for public works projects.
"We're going to have to work together as a community to address the needs," County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said. "The problems are not going away; they are just getting larger."
To help bolster county coffers, Chestnut and fellow freshman Commissioner Lee Pinkoson want to reach out to local businesses and business development groups to build the county's economic base. That, too, they believe, will provide jobs for thousands of underemployed residents.
"We need to work on targeting certain industries for the middle sector that will pay well, but that don't need an advanced degree," Pinkoson said.
Meanwhile, construction is slated to be complete on the county's new courthouse in September. The courthouse, which will house the county's criminal proceedings, is set to open for business in January 2004.
The county is responsible for paying for the operational costs - electricity, maintenance and capital improvements - of the courthouse. With the state gearing up to take over paying for court services, including the state attorney, clerk of courts and public defender in 2004, it is unclear if some funds now going to counties will be taken away by the state.
Members of the county's legislative delegation have told county officials to prepare for the worst.
Janine Young Sikes can be reached at 337-0327 or

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