Hole in the bucket

Published: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 12:36 a.m.

County Manager Randy Reid has an apt analogy for Alachua County's dilemma as it grapples with a looming budget deficit approaching $25 million over the next four years.

Imagine county government as a wooden bucket.

"Needs are pouring into the bucket, and the bucket is overflowing. And there is a hole in the bottom of the bucket and our revenues are flowing out," Reid says.

There's a hole in the county's bucket, no question. And keeping that bucket filled with enough revenue to provide basic public services figures to be the biggest challenge facing county government over the next few years.

In the coming fiscal year alone, the county will have to cover substantial increases in jail, courthouse, ambulance service, insurance and other costs. But while the bucket of needs is overflowing, the county is looking at a stagnant, or even declining, revenue flow.

Which brings us to the hole in the bucket. Call it the annexation hole.

Last year, when the city annexed an area southwest of the university containing about 15,000 people, it kicked a $2.4 million hole in the county bucket. And that was just in the county's MSTU property tax fund.

In the coming year, that annexation will cost the county's general fund another $800,000 in lost sales, occupational, liquor and other taxes.

County government is still trying to make adjustments as a result of that loss of revenue base and shift of service delivery responsibilities.

But now comes the city with yet another annexation proposal, this time one that would incorporate another 5,400 people and divert another $1 million in MSTU taxes from the county.

That loss to be followed one year later by an additional $350,000 reduction to the general fund.

On paper, it can be argued that the "cost" of annexation is a wash for the county. Theoretically, it means the city simply adds more police and firefighters and so on to serve the annexed area using the same dollars the county once received, while the county, in turn, reduces its own workforce to reflect the fact that it now serves a smaller paying "customer base."

That's the theory. In practice, the transition of costs and responsibilities does not always flow so smoothly. Nor is employee reduction so easily accomplished.

In this case, for instance, independently elected Alachua County Sheriff Steve Oelrich doesn't want to shrink his deputy force in proportion to the loss of funding due to annexation.

Oelrich is suing the County Commission to get his road patrol paid for out of the general fund rather than the MSTU. The former is paid by all county taxpayers, the latter is only paid by unincorporated area residents, and if Oelrich prevails, Gainesville taxpayers will end up paying twice to support two urban road patrol operations.

The most recent annexation proposal involves the SW 20th Avenue corridor between 34th Street and I-75. At the request of the University of Florida's student government, Gainesville commissioners have given initial approval to a spring annexation referendum.

No question, the area is urban in nature, compact and contiguous to the city. And on paper, its annexation into Gainesville makes perfect sense.

But what's the rush? Why undertake yet another massive annexation so quickly, and while county government is still hemorrhaging revenues as a result of the previous annexation? If annexation of the area makes sense this year, won't it still make sense next year?

County commissioners have asked the city to slow down the pace of annexation and spend some time hammering out a transition agreement that might make the shifting of revenues and service delivery responsibilities less painful for either government.

It is a reasonable request, but in discussions on Monday night, only one city commissioner seemed at all sympathetic to the county's problems.

"Let's make this a model (annexation)," argued City Commissioner Ed Braddy, even if that means "delaying the annexation" while the two commissions find "the best possible approaches to solving some of these problems.

"Let's look for an opportunity to do something that would be a win-win for the city and the county," he argued.

Braddy made an eloquent case for closer city-county cooperation on annexations. Moving ahead with yet another massive annexation so quickly only adds insult to injury to the cause of intergovernmental cooperation.

Especially when you consider that the County Commission is fighting Sheriff Oelrich's suit in order to protect Gainesville residents from double taxation.

"This conflict over annexations tends to destroy the other partnerships we try to create," Reid points out. "When governments are in a win-lose situation, it's harder to work together."

The county's revenue bucket already has a hole in it. A little time out on annexation - while both sides work out what Braddy refers to as a "model" transition policy - would not seem out of line on the city's part.

This weekend, at the County Commission's retreat at Poe Springs, facilitator Marilyn Crotty of the University of Central Florida's Institute of Government noted that the degree of cooperation between Gainesville and Alachua County over recent annexations is highly unusual.

"Most other counties are fighting tooth and nail to stop every annexation," she said.

County commissioners have elected not to fight the city tooth and nail over every annexation. The least Gainesville could do in return is give the county a little time, and a little help, to mend the hole in its revenue bucket.

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