County readies for less revenue

Published: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 11:13 p.m.
The unincorporated territory governed by the Alachua County Commission is sure to shrink through annexation, and officials learned Friday it will come at a deep cost - potentially almost $22 million a year.
So commissioners at Friday's retreat began looking for new ways to make money - cell towers on public land, expansion of wireless computer networks and other technology-based "revenue diversification" possibilities.
"We should look for ways to make money," Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said. "Is there any county land where cell towers can go? Our advisors tell us it's a vertical gold mine."
The theme of the retreat was "Focus on Performance" and it delved into the future reductions in tax revenue the county will face with increased annexations of the Gainesville urban reserve area - the unincorporated suburban areas that surround Gainesville - by the city.
Data shows that the population of the urban reserve area is 66,282 households - about 70 percent of the population in the unincorporated parts of the county. Property is valued at about $2.7 billion.
If the entire area were annexed, the county would lose an estimated $21.8 million in revenue. That is about 65 percent of the budgeted 2004 revenue.
Gainesville has steadily been annexing areas of its unincorporated fringe into the city, and more annexation are likely.
Revenue diversification - finding new ways to make money rather than relying so heavily on property and other existing taxes - could become a future trend.
Proposed cell towers sites often engender opposition from neighbors or create environmental concerns. More communities, however, are letting companies lease public property for the towers for substantial fees.
Another possibility could be wireless computer network antennas, such as those used for the Digital Downtown, a free wireless Internet connection in a small area of downtown Gainesville. Unobtrusive antennas for that are already perched on the county administration building and Union Street Station, county officials said.
For the next few years, at least, county revenue should be healthier than the past few, county officials told commissioners at the retreat.
Money raised countywide for the commission's general fund from property and sales taxes, licenses and permits, service fees and other sources will continue to grow steadily through 2008, county officials predicted. The 2004 adopted budget is about $93 million while the estimated 2008 revenue is about $114 million.
Income growth is also expected from metropolitan services taxing units - the unincorporated parts of the county that are not in a city. The money is spent primarily on fire-rescue service. A separate tax unit to pay for sheriff's road patrols will also increase.
The gains come after an especially difficult year of severe budget cuts. But despite the rosy outlook, County Manager Randy Reid urged caution.
"You went through white water rapids and now you're in calm," Reid said.
"But there could be more white water rapids around the bend. That's the environment you're in."
A key long-term goal of the commission is to stop providing urban services by encouraging and enabling municipalities to take over those services, which include recreation and law enforcement.
Also igniting discussion was a list of the status of initiatives under way by the county and whether the county has enough staff to efficiently work on them and the new work that commissioners are adding on.
For example, Commissioner Rodney Long at a recent meeting said the county needs to get involved in finding better ways to shelter homeless people on cold winter nights.
County staff will have to research the matter, study it and write a report with a recommendation - adding to their workload and taking them away from another project. Long said the county might need more employees.
"If we are going to keep adding objectives, maybe we need to add staff," Long said to Reid. "You just have to tell us that."
Commissioner Mike Byerly said Reid should tell commissioners how much staff time will be needed on a particular initiative when one is sought by a commissioner.
"Are we coming to the point where we are piling on?" Byerly said.
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or

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