Death of a thousand cuts

Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 9:51 p.m.
Once upon a time, the county bought the 1,585-acre Balu Forest - an old pine tree plantation east of Gainesville - with the intent of turning it into a giant landfill. But a popular uprising against a new garbage dump eventually persuaded county commissioners to shelve the idea and, instead, send the county's garbage elsewhere for disposal.
We don't fight much about landfills around here anymore (one of the few things we don't continue to fight about, I might add). Exporting our garbage turns out to be one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy decisions that plays well with the constituency.
Anyway, getting back to the Balu Forest, it's still there. And the county wants to replant native trees with the intent of restoring Balu to some semblance of its old growth grandeur. And conservation being a crowd-pleaser hereabouts, who's going to raise a fuss about that?
Well, Ed Braddy for one. The other day, City Commissioner Braddy wrote a letter to Chairman Rodney Long that said, essentially: Congrats on your plan to restore the Balu Forest. And don't even think about doing it with city taxpayer's money.
"Since citizens of Gainesville have paid into the Solid Waste Transfer Fund (SWTF), I believe it is my responsibility, as an individual city commissioner and a concerned citizen, to ask if the Balu Forest tract was purchased with money from the SWTF," Braddy wrote. "If money from the SWTF was used to purchase the property and if the property will no longer be designated for solid waste, it is your intention to reimburse the SWTF and will you document a time line for this to be completed?"
Message: Millions for garbage, not one penny for oak trees.
Heaven forfend that a Gainesville dollar intended for waste disposal should instead be used in fraudulent fashion to plant an acorn out in the enemy territory known as the "unincorporated area." That would mean - gasp! - that city taxpayers would be "subsidizing" the county.
While Braddy's concern about using city garbage money to restore a county forest may or may not become a "major issue," he and the other city commissioners are already upset because the county last year "borrowed" $2.2 million out of the solid waste fund to cover other budget shortfalls.
That, of course, meant that - "gasp" - city taxpayers were "subsidizing" the county. Gainesville wants that "misappropriation" of city dollars - to use Mayor Tom Bussing's term - paid back pronto. And if that means the county has to raise taxes to do it (some of which may actually be paid by - "gasp" - city taxpayers) so be it.
This question of subsidization runs rife through virtually every official discussion that crosses city-county lines. And it has been so for years. It is central, for instance, to the years-long conflict over fire and rescue services. Down at City Hall some take it as gospel that the word "merger" is code for "They want Gainesville to subsidize sprawl in the unincorporated area" (gasp!).
And then there's the "subsidy" that the county "extorts" from the city every year to operate street lights and fire hydrants in the unincorporated area.
Getting the city out of that two-decade agreement - which costs about $1 million a year - is a top priority for Mayor Bussing. Of course, when you consider that unincorporated GRU customers have over the years paid millions of dollars in surcharges to the city and gotten virtually nothing in return, you have to wonder just who is subsidizing whom?
But never mind that. The larger point is that this question of cross-jurisdictional subsidization can be taken to counterproductive, even ridiculous extremes. Yes, the sheriff's suit to get his road patrol funded out of the general fund may raise legitimate issues regarding double taxation for Gainesville residents (And oddly enough, the County Commission is on the city's side in that dispute). But should city officials really be ready to go to the mattresses over whether or not city garbage fund dollars are being squandered on county trees?
How's this for an outrageous subsidization? There is little doubt that the county could have built its still-under-construction courthouse more cheaply had it been sited out in the urban fringes on land already in public ownership (and with plenty of space left over for cheap parking to boot). But county commissioners had a commitment to downtown redevelopment. And there's no question that the new courthouse will be an economic jolt for the central business district.
But wait a minute! That courthouse is being paid for with sales tax dollars and will be operated with general fund dollars. And is it really fair to ask county taxpayers in Waldo and Alachua and Newberry (or for that matter, taxpayers in west Gainesville) to "subsidize" (gasp!) downtown economic development?
This isn't to suggest that there aren't legitimate questions involving tax equity to be settled between city and county. There are. But in the past, the city has produced auditor reports containing whole laundry lists of examples in which city taxpayers are allegedly being forced to "subsidize" county residents. That laundry list has seriously impeded city-county relations over the years, and it is apt to surface again when next city and county commissioners get together to talk about their common problems. And it has a way of getting longer with time; witness Braddy's blowing the whistle on the Great Balu Forest Rip-Off.
Meanwhile, Gainesville and the other municipalities keep slicing away at the county's tax base using annexation like a giant scalpel.
County commissioners, facing big budget shortfalls and watching their revenue base suffer the death of a thousand cuts, are looking to get out of the urban services delivery business in a big way; starting with fire and emergency rescue services. And if the county can hand over the delivery of fire and emergency rescue to Gainesville, other responsibilities - like parks and recreation - may follow.
Gainesville, by virtue of its ownership of a profitable electric utility (GRU's motto: We have a license to print money) is already in a much stronger bargaining position than county government in any negotiations about service delivery roles and revenue transfers. So why add insult to injury by trying to nickel-and-dime the county over a long list of (gasp!) miscellaneous subsidy issues?
Listen, if a city dollar falls in a county forest, does it really make a noise?
Perhaps only to Commissioner Braddy's finely turned ears.

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