Issues, old and new, to pose challenges in '04


Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 11:28 p.m.

It's time to shake off the hangover and start sliding with anticipation and trepidation into a new year that portends to be full of interesting elections, disagreements over how to spend money, still more debate over what to do with our homeless and other provocative matters.

Everywhere you look there are questions that will be answered in the months ahead.

Schools

Q:

What are the top issues facing Alachua County schools in 2004?

A:

The Alachua County School Board must decide if it wants to keep or replace Superintendent Mary Chambers, whose contract expires in September. Last fall, Chambers seemed to have the three votes out of five board members necessary to extend her contract by one year. But the board decided to delay the vote on a contract extension until this month.

Meanwhile, the district already has significant transitions to make because of a new student attendance zoning plan adopted Dec. 2.

The new zoning plan relieves some overcrowding in westside schools but would effectively close southeast Gainesville's Prairie View Elementary School.

The next steps after rezoning include parents applying for school-choice exemptions to the student assignment plan, preparation for a districtwide shifting of teachers and staff, development of new elementary school magnet programs and charting a new set of bus routes.

University of Florida

Q:

What are some of the challenges facing incoming University of Florida President Bernie Machen when he starts work on Monday?

A:

Machen and UF have some formidable challenges ahead including an impending faculty union election, a tight budget year in Tallahassee and planning for the launch of a billion-plus-dollar fund-raising campaign.

After Machen starts work Monday, he'll begin building a leadership team to help him put his stamp on the UF strategic plan drafted by outgoing President Charles Young. Implied in the strategic plan is that UF will concentrate its efforts on a smaller number of academic endeavors. Machen, who has been president of the University of Utah for the past six years, said he expects to consult with the faculty to make the difficult decisions in prioritizing UF's efforts.

Machen said he plans to hit the ground running, but won't begin making changes immediately.

"I have no special agenda for the first six months," Machen said in a recent interview. "My expectations are there won't be a lot of changes until I'm able to get in here and see how things work."

University trustees concerned with legislative relations and University of Florida Foundation officials eager to introduce Machen to UF donors have scheduled him on a meet-and- greet tour of the state this month.

Foundation officials announced in February that, beginning with a "quiet phase" in 2005, going public in 2007, UF will launch a campaign to raise at least $1 billion.

Health and medicine

Q:

What's the most significant change expected in the medical community in 2004?

A:

For North Central Florida residents, the most important change could come in late August. That's when Shands at the University of Florida could get provisional approval from the state to operate a Level 1 trauma center.

Up until now, area residents have been living in what Dr. Lawrence Lottenberg, a nationally known trauma surgeon, described as "the Bermuda triangle of trauma care."

If you can get a critically injured person to medical care within the first hour - called the "golden hour" in trauma-care circles - the chance of survival improves by 300 percent. The nearest state-certified trauma center is now an 80-mile helicopter flight from Gainesville to Shands Jacksonville.

Lottenberg will direct the effort, starting today, to build Shands at UF into a center that is prepared to see 1,000 or more trauma cases a year - the most critically hurt trauma victims whose injuries could kill them within minutes.

Q:

What's all the construction going on around Shands and the University of Florida's Health Science Center?

A:

Access to Shands at the University of Florida won't be easy in the months to come, but the payoff will be a new Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The NICU, being built with a $4 million gift from the Children's Miracle Network, will provide a state-of-the-art facility for newborns.

Over on the northwest corner of 34th Street and Hull Road, the new Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Institute is taking shape.

When it opens in the summer, it will bring some much-needed "leg-room" for UF's department of orthopedics and rehabilitation.

Construction of a new building for UF's genetics, cancer and biotechnology research centers should begin shortly, with a tentative completion date of spring 2006. The multidisciplinary research facility will be set near the intersection of Mowry Road and North-South Drive, near the existing Davis Cancer Center. Preliminary work is under way at the site.

The Genetics Institute will be housed in one six-story wing. Dr. Ken Berns, former vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, has returned to UF to direct the campuswide institute.

The UF Shands Cancer Center will have fives stories on the south wing. The Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research will occupy the first floor of that wing.

In all, the new facility will cover more than 350,000 square feet.

Rural counties

Q:

Will the operation of methamphetamine labs continue to be a problem in the region? And how will small counties cope with the growing number of labs which rely on hazardous materials to concoct the highly addictive drug?

A:

Florida recently developed a Statewide Methamphetamine Strategy that is similar to a smaller-scale arrangement established in Live Oak two years ago.

Like the local effort that drew experts from several agencies together to deal with a lab, the new statewide strategy is to use specially trained officers from federal and state agencies and to assign the officers to regional teams in Gainesville, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Panama City, Tallahassee and Tampa. The teams will work with local agencies to find and clean up the labs.

"You are taking your life in your hand every time you respond to one of these things," FDLE special agent Robin McDaniel said.

The chemicals used to make meth are exceptionally volatile and the people who cook them in the illicit labs are often users whose thinking processes have been adversely affected by the drug, he said.

Courts

Q:

What are the biggest changes facing the courts next year?

A:

"There's three significant areas of change for 2004. The next year will be a time of anxiety in the beginning and a time of change after we learn what the new rules are as provided by the Legislature," said 8th Circuit Court Administrator Ted McFetridge.

This year changes take effect regarding how the courts are funded. Called Revision 7, voters passed the change in 1998 providing that the state should bear more responsibility for funding the trial courts. How the state will provide that funding, to what court programs and how much could impact residents in ways ranging from how it much it costs to file a lawsuit to what current court services may no longer be available.

Also, McFetridge said, on Monday, the court in Alachua County will be opening the doors for the operation of the new criminal justice center."

The $27.9 million project is located off S. Main Street. Civil and family courts will continue to be held at the current courthouse at 201 E. University Ave.

Gainesville

Q:

What should the city to do revitalize NW 13th Street?

A:

Gainesville City Commissioner Warren Nielsen said the city needs to hold a charrette, or series of brainstorming meetings, to look at the future of NW 13th Street.

Several businesses in that area have closed in recent years.

Nielsen said he envisions NW 13th Street shops and a movie theater, like Plaza Royale on Newberry Road.

"It needs to be a destination. It needs to be an urban town center-type place, levels above what's happened at Plaza Royale," he said.

John Hudson, a developer and building contractor, said the city also needs to provide stormwater drainage retention for the area.

"Right now, it goes straight into Hogtown Creek, and doesn't have any treatment at all," he said.

Q:

What should Gainesville do to solve the downtown homeless problem?

A:

Gainesville City Commissioner Ed Braddy said the City Commission will be looking at toughening its panhandling ordinance as early as mid-January. But he acknowledged that all panhandlers aren't homeless, and all homeless people aren't panhandlers.

Braddy said the city may need to provide incentives, and disincentives - like law enforcement - for the homeless to locate at area shelters, instead of downtown.

Homeless advocate Arupa Freeman said the city should build a "safe space" shelter for the homeless.

City of Alachua

Q:

Will the political bickering in Alachua continue?

A:

More than likely, though the extent of it will depend on the outcome of City Commission elections.

Two key seats are up for grabs - those of Mayor Bonnie Burgess and Vice Mayor Tamara Robbins. Major issues will center on the city's rapid pace of growth, especially industrial growth in on about 1,700 acres southwest of downtown owned by Waco Properties.

Robbins has favored slowing it - a position that puts her at odds with the town's establishment and, often, a majority of the commission.

Burgess is often the swing vote and was crucial in the decision to approve a massive Wal-Mart distribution center in town, a vote that generated a still-pending lawsuit from a group opposed to the warehouse.

Neither Robbins nor Burgess has publicly said if they will run for re-election.

Law enforcement

Q:

What new programs will the Gainesville Police Department implement next year?

A:

This year, residents will benefit from more police officers in the field instead of in the station, Sgt. Keith Kameg said. All Gainesville Police cars will have laptop computers thanks to a $5 million reward police received in 2003 for their work in a large federal drug case.

"We are no longer a technological dinosaur," he said.

GPD is also expanding DataTrac, its computerized system of keeping track of crime patterns. By expanding the statistics they track, police may be able to prevent some crimes and accidents by figuring out their patterns.

"Instead of answering the call over and over again, we're trying to do something to get at the root of the problem," Kameg said.

Two new grants will help GPD better serve children and victims of domestic violence, Kameg said.

A $278,000 grant for GPD's Internet Crimes Against Children program will allow them to get information from all over the state to help them solve these crimes. The department is also getting a $454,000 grant this year to fight domestic violence.

Q:

What new programs or other things will the Sheriff's Office implement next year?

A:

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office also has big plans in the works for next year, Sheriff Steve Oelrich said. The Sheriff's Office will begin adding 60 extra beds at the jail, using converted storage space. The office also ask the County Commission for money to build another wing onto the jail to add at least 120 more beds in the future, Oelrich said.

The Sheriff's Office also will try to dissuade the city of Gainesville from pulling out of the Combined Communications Center, Oelrich said.

The Sheriff's Office will step up its campaign to cut down the number of aggressive drivers, Oelrich said.

"In the last 15-20 years we've seen a deterioration of people's courtesy and safety on the roadways," Oelrich said. The Sheriff's Office will also more closely scrutinize the driving habits of their deputies, Oelrich added.

"We ourselves have too many accidents," he said. "We need to have our people be the flagship for safe driving."

Alachua County

Q:

How many local referendums will voters see on the ballot in the fall of 2004?

A:

That's still unclear.

But the Alachua County Commission has discussed placing as many as three separate sales tax proposals - a total of 1 cents - on the ballot in the fall. Voters may be able to vote on them individually or there's a chance that two of them - transportation and recreation - will be lumped together

  • Transportation: Half-cent sales tax in place for seven years would generate about $126 million for a laundry list of road improvements, sidewalks and bike paths, traffic signals and dirt road paving in the small cities.

  • Recreation: Half-cent sales tax has been proposed to help build new parks and ball fields to offset a severe shortage of facilities countywide. A recreation master plan has been completed, but a list of actual projects to be built with sales tax proceeds could come this spring.

  • Health care: Quarter-cent sales tax will generate approximately $7 million a year to help fund a proposed health insurance program for small businesses and their lower-wage employees and a second program aimed at giving the county's working poor access to health care.

    The County Commission is also expected to allow voters to decide if they favor adding extra restrictions on campaign finance - like capping contributions at $250 - for candidates running for the County Commission, supervisor of elections, tax collector, property appraiser, sheriff and clerk of the court.

    Q:

    After years of failed attempts, will the Gainesville Regional Airport finally land another air carrier?

    A:

    That's the plan, and airport officials are sticking to it.

    Airport Director Rick Crider said he hopes the airport will cinch a deal with Continental Airlines by late January, following 1 years of negotiations. The Houston-based airline has said it is interested in establishing daily routes between Gainesville and Newark, N.J., and Gainesville and Houston.

    But should that deal fall through, several other airlines, including American Airlines, are waiting in the wings.

    American has expressed interest in flights between Gainesville and Miami and Gainesville and Dallas through its regional air carrier American Eagle.

    Environment

    Q:

    Is it inevitable that Suwannee River water will one day quench the thirst of South Florida's major metropolitan areas?

    A:

    For now, it seems unlikely that long-distance water transfers will materialize in Florida's near future.

    While a recent report from an influential business group recommended changes to the way the state's water resources are managed, public outcry has probably doomed an immediate north-south transfer option.

    But that doesn't mean change isn't imminent.

    At a recent meeting in High Springs to discuss state water policy, Lee Arnold, chairman of the Council of 100's water task force, said that while long distance transfers of water don't make sense, "regional transfer of water makes a lot of sense."

    The recommended changes, which have caught the attention of Gov. Jeb Bush, mean that the localized movement of water between cities, counties and water management districts could be in the state's future. Such a system is already in place in place in Tampa Bay, and the St. Johns River Water Management District has already begun studying ways to treat St. Johns River surface water and supply it to surrounding counties.

    Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@gvillesun.com. Contributing to this report were Sun staff writers Diane Chun, Lise Fisher, Kathy Ciotola, Greg Bruno, Douane James, Carrie Miller, Ashley Rowland, Karen Voyles and Janine Sikes.

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