Agenda for progress

Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 12:24 a.m.
As is our tradition, The Sun begins each new year by proposing items of public business that we believe would help make Gainesville and Alachua County a better community.
Among our public agenda items for 2004 are:
Unification: As 2003 drew to a close, The Sun published a series of essays, editorials and columns about the movement to unify city and county governments. We took a look at peer university communities - Athens, Ga. and Lexington, Ky. - as well as communities like Nashville, Jacksonville, Columbus, Ga., and so on that have successfully merged their city and county governments in order to promote economic growth, do better comprehensive planning and more efficiently structure vital public services.
In 2004, our goal is to facilitate the creation of a citizens movement to promote the unification of Gainesville and Alachua County governments. We are convinced that doing so would end expensive duplication in government, put a stop to petty political feuding and bureaucratic turf-guarding, allow for better and more cohesive land use planning and the more prudent expenditure of taxpayer dollars. Shortly into the new year, we will publish the results of a survey that shows strong public support for unification.
We believe that local taxpayers are, quite simply, supporting more local government than they either need or can afford. Unification would be especially conducive to the provision of better and more efficient law enforcement, fire fighting and emergency rescue services throughout Alachua County.
Town-gown relations: The new year will bring a new president to the University of Florida. President Bernie Machen will arrive to find a university and a host community that has not yet fully maximized the potential for town-gown cooperation. We urge Machen to make, as one of his first orders of business, the improvement of the university-community partnership.
The potential for UF to help spur economic opportunity, especially on the east side of Gainesville, is enormous. In that regard, we suggest President Machen take a hard look at the degree to which Yale has invested in the renewal of its host community, New Haven, Conn. UF's own fortunes are surely linked to the improving prosperity of the community that surrounds its campus.
We can think of a thousand ways in which prolonged and more active UF involvement can help improve this community's schools, economic prospects, overall quality of life and so on. Perhaps a good first step in that direction would be the convening of a "Town-Gown Summit" early on in 2004. We look forward to a new, golden era of university-community relations.
Transportation: This community's $200 million backlog in transportation improvements has been well documented. The failure to adequately improve and maintain our transportation infrastructure inhibits our economic development prospects, squanders enormous amounts of money in lost productivity and negatively impacts our quality of life.
The logical way to pay for transportation improvements is through higher gasoline taxes - the purest form of user fee imaginable. But our county commissioners lack the courage to raise gas taxes.
Instead, timid commissioners will ask voters in 2004 to approve a sales tax initiative that would pay for about $126 million in transportation improvements. That falls short of what's needed, but it's a step in the right direction. The challenge for elected officials and civic and business leaders who recognize the importance of adequate transportation will be in convincing skeptical voters that taxing themselves to improve their roads is in their own best interests.
In the meantime, county commissioners should press forward with their long delayed consideration of new impact fees to help cover the cost of providing additional services as the community continues to grow.
Recreation: In 2003, hundreds of local residents gathered in a Gainesville church to ask city and county commissioners for better after-school programs and recreational facilities. The amount of money that both Gainesville and Alachua County spend on recreation is a disgrace. Commissioners hope that the voters will approve a sales tax to fund better recreation as well. But if they refuse to do so, we urge both Gainesville and Alachua County governments to find ways to generate more revenue for recreation.
Better schools: In 2003, the School Board approved a massive rezoning plan that had the practical effect of creating "rich" schools and "poor" schools. Most of the poor schools - those with disproportionately large populations of students from low socio-economic family backgrounds - are on the east side of Gainesville.
Having legitimized the resegregation of Alachua County schools, board members now have an obligation to find new and creative ways to funnel additional resources, faculty, support staff and other help to east side schools that will surely struggle to make the "grade" under the state's regressive system of assessing rewards and punishments based on test scores. A good way to start would be to find a way to turn Prairie View Elementary - slated for closure because it's on the "wrong" side of town - into an educational asset for east Gainesville.
Improved air service: Gainesville's struggling airport is a major impediment to economic development. The good news is that the creation of a local "ticket trust," coupled with federal funding received as a result of that trust, has attracted the interest of several carriers. We hope that 2004 will mark a turning point for the Gainesville Regional Airport.
The ticket trust is just a beginning, however. Even if one or more new carriers are lured to the airport, they won't stay long unless there is a sustained commitment from UF, local businesses and government travelers to "fly local" rather than drive to nearby regional airports where fares may be cheaper.
This above "to do in 2004" list is by no means inclusive. There is much more to do this year to help make Gainesville and Alachua County the progressive university community that most would like it to be.
For instance, we must protect the quality of Gainesville's creeks and waterways and protect our potable water supple against contamination. We must do more to discourage wasteful suburban sprawl, fight poverty and improve access to health care. Local arts and cultural organizations that have suffered deep state budget cuts need the community's support.
We must find ways to revitalize urban commercial corridors - like NW 13th Street - that are threatened with abandonment by the western expansion of "big box" retailers. And as the city-owned GRU decides how to provide for the city's future energy needs, it should do so in a manner that is not only economically feasible, but environmentally responsible.
The community's public agenda, in other words, is long and ambitious. There is much work to be done. For now, as we look forward to a better and more prosperous 2004, we wish our readers a Happy New Year.

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