All those time bombs

Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 11:46 p.m.

If there was ever a "golden-age" of city-county relations, it reached its zenith a about two years ago.

That's when both commissions were run by new urbanists who were pretty much on the same page when it came to issues like controlling suburban sprawl by doing urban infill, annexing urbanized neighborhoods into Gainesville, adopting transportation policies that encouraged walking, biking and busing, "calming" traffic and so on.

Alas, the golden age ended with Camelot-like rapidity at the hands of the voters.

The shared vision that forged the city-county partnership began to blur with the defeat of then-Mayor Paula DeLaney by Tom Bussing. It further deteriorated as Pegeen Hanrahan was forced to leave the commission because of term limits and John Barrow was beaten in his bid for a second term.

They were replaced by conservative Republicans who were suspicious of both new urbanism and too much fraternization with the county. Hence, last year's abrupt termination of fire and rescue merger talks at the instigation of Bussing and city newcomers Tony Domenech and Ed Braddy.

And with the defeat of county incumbents Dave Newport and Robert Hutchinson in November, things seem to be headed back to "normal" in regard to county-city relations; which is to say that the political and bureaucratic walls seem as formidable as ever.

It doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't be that way.

Both governments are facing serious short-and-long-term revenue problems that ought to be the impetus for a fundamental re-examination of roles. This should be a time for commissioners to come together and take a hard look at what each government does, whether costly duplication of effort is taking place, and whether partnerships can be forged that would both save the taxpayers money and improve public services. They ought to be hard at work coming to broad agreements on everything from annexation to growth management to the delivery of important public safety services.

And some of those discussions have already begun. Certainly, the visioning process that all of the municipalities are engaging in with the county shows promise. The city-county Plan East Gainesville project is still moving forward. And at their retreat on Friday and Saturday, county commissioners talked about other opportunities to expand intergovernmental partnerships.

The good news is that some of the relatively "new players" on the scene are really old hands who are very familiar with the city-county jurisdictional landscape.

Rodney Long, the new chair of the county commission, is a former Gainesville mayor. So is recently elected County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut. And although he had no previous experience in city government, Lee Pinkoson ran for county office on an "Alachua together" pledge to work cooperatively with the city and other stakeholders in the community.

The bad news is that there are several ticking time bombs out there - some of which have literally been ticking away for years - that threaten to derail city-county efforts to get their acts together. Any one or any combination of those time bombs could go off with devastating consequences to intergovernmental cooperation in 2003.

They include:

  • Annexation:

    The city's recent annexation southwest of the university - an area of 13,000 people - kicked a half-million-dollar hole in the county's budget. The county is now looking at a $7.4 million deficit in its coming fiscal year, and already the city is moving ahead with yet another large annexation.

    "The 'aggressive' annexation policy of Gainesville requires we recognize the fiscal loss we bear with each annexation," County Manager Randy Reid said in a memo this week to his commissioners.

    Furthermore, county officials are increasingly irritated by what they see as a pattern of "cherry-picking" in city annexation policies; the tendency to take in tax-base rich areas rather than poor neighborhoods that require more expensive services.

    The city's annexations plans "don't seem to include parts of east Gainesville," Long noted this week.

  • Fire service costs:

    Another fallout from the last annexation occurred last year, when the city contended that under the mutual assistance agreement, the county is obligated to continue to provide fire suppression services in the newly incorporated area for the next two years.

    The city later indicated that it might pay the county half a million dollars for that coverage. But just this week, a "new analysis" from Gainesville concluded that the city owed the county just $37,000.

    Noted Reid in a terse memo to county commissioners, "county staff doubt that you will see a situation where the city of Gainesville will place itself in a position to pay Alachua County" anything for fire suppression in the annexed area.

  • Solid waste funding:

    City officials screamed bloody murder last year when the county commission took $2.2 million out of the Solid Waste System Fund to help plug other gaps in the budget.

    Gainesville wants that money repaid, but Reid told commissioners this week that doing so could force them to raise taxes. If county commissioners put the repayment issue on the back burner, city officials won't be happy about it.

    Mayor Bussing calls that loan a "misappropriation" of money that both city and county taxpayers contributed to the Solid Waste Fund, and said the fund "isn't supposed to be raided by the county commission."

  • Street lights and fire hydrants:

    This is an oldie but a goodie.

    To settle a heated city-county feud back in the 1980s, the city commission - led by then-Mayor Cynthia Chestnut - signed a contract agreeing to pay the annual cost of operating street lights and fire hydrants in the unincorporated area.

    Now, that obligation is costing the city about $1 million a year, and Bussing and other commissioners have indicated that they want to get out of it.

    "It's an unresolved issue of equity in taxation and financing," Bussing said this week. "It's an outdated agreement."

    He may be right. It's hard to imagine the cash-strapped county letting the city out of that obligation, however.

  • Gasoline taxes:

    Assuming that the county commission does get the courage to raise gasoline taxes this year, the county is legally obligated to negotiate an agreement with the city over just how the new gas taxes would be divided up.

    The last time the issue arose, the two commissions disagreed sharply over how to make the split - Gainesville wanted the money divided by population, which would favor the city, while county commissioners wanted to split it according to road-miles, which would spread more funding into the unincorporated area.

    "You take all the risks to do it (raise taxes) and then you may end up not getting the money you need," says Long.

    The above are just a handful of the still-unresolved issues that threaten to further complicate city-county relations in the new year. And they may not even be the most contentious issues.

    Certainly, little movement toward renewing fire and emergency rescue service consolidation has taken place since the November election. And even as Long proposed this week that the county turn its fire and rescue department over to the city, he added pessimistically, "I'd bet they won't take it."

    And then there are the potential third-party complications.

    If Sheriff Steve Oelrich wins his lawsuit to have his road patrol funded out of the general fund - as opposed to the unincorporated MSTU tax - it will put county commissioners in a fiscal bind and put city taxpayers in the position of having to pay to support two police forces.

    And if the county decides it wants to take another local sales tax proposition to the voters this year, it will first have to deal with the School Board, which may have designs of its own on the sales tax. "We don't want the school board to go out to referendum all by themselves," Long says.

    And of course, Gainesville isn't the only municipality hereabouts with "aggressive" annexation policies. If the joint visioning exercise doesn't pan out, Alachua, Newberry, Archer and other small towns could also continue to eat away at the county's tax base.

    The good news is that all of the time bombs are capable of being defused by elected officials possessed of goodwill, the spirit of cooperation and who have no axes to grind or hidden agendas to carry out.

    The bad news is that we're going to need elected officials possessed of goodwill, the spirit of cooperation and who have no axes to grind or hidden agendas to carry out to defuse all those time bombs.

    Ron Cunningham is The Sun's editorial page editor. Write him at

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