Budget battles dominate forecast for 2005

Published: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 12:25 a.m.
From test bombs to budgetary battles, 2005 looks to be a year of political conflict in North Central Florida.
New development and money, or the lack of it, will be key issues for governments and educational institutions in the region.
Two proposed industrial facilities - a power plant for Gainesville Regional Utilities and expansion of a Newberry cement plant - promise to generate heat.
And Gulf Coast counties may again be courted by the Air Force, which still wants to test weapons there despite public opposition.
  • ALACHUA COUNTY: Cash and credibility will be on the minds of county commissioners this year.
    Initiatives for two sales taxes - one for recreation, one for roads - were defeated by voters in November.
    Commissioners believe one reason for the defeat is that the public does not have confidence in the commission to spend wisely.
    So the county must find money for its needs and figure out it can show the public it knows how to handle the money.
    "We are going to be dealing with revenue and how to stay within budget, and how to build confidence with the public in terms or our accountability and our ability to handle their funds in a fiscally responsible manner," Chairwoman Cynthia Chestnut said. "We are also going to address team-building in terms of working with all of the municipalities and building confidence with them."
    The quarter-cent CHOICES surcharge - a health-care program for the working poor - was approved by voters. The tax started Saturday.
    "Implementing CHOICES is going to be big and I am getting lots of calls about it," Chestnut said. "CHOICES will definitely be one of my interest areas in addition to the fiscal responsibility."
    Another county task will be enacting new land-development regulations to fit with a new comprehensive plan. The plan passed legal challenge and is expected to go into effect this year.
  • GAINESVILLE: Development issues are likely to dominate Gainesville politics in the coming year.
    University Corners, a residential and commercial project that will rise eight stories over three blocks at NW 13 Street and University Avenue, will be one of the largest projects discussed by the City Commission in 2005.
    The project has received a warm reception from commissioners. It is set for an initial vote by late January or early February.
    Around the same time, the commission also will take up a Gainesville Regional Utilities' proposal to expand its generating capacity with a $535 million, 220-megawatt plant.
    Some residents raised concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from the plant. GRU recently responded by putting forward a proposal that would fund projects to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in its coverage area to offset the plant's impact.
    A new supercenter proposal from Wal-Mart also is likely during the year.
    In March, city residents vote in three City Commission races. Commissioners Ed Braddy, Rick Bryant and Tony Domenech are up for re-election. Five challengers have already declared their candidacies.
    Commissioners must choose a permanent replacement for former City Manager Wayne Bowers, who left Florida in October to take a job in Greenville, N.C.
    A hiring decision will likely be made in the summer following a nationwide search process. At least one applicant for the position is close at hand: Interim City Manager Barbara Lipscomb, who was assistant city manager under Bowers.
  • UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA: UF President Bernie Machen, the Harley-driving, straight-talking dentist, begins a second year, pushing ahead to secure raises for the faculty, to fill his Cabinet and to help facilitate the transfer of some powers, like setting tuition, to the universities from the state Legislature.
    A fickle Legislature and an uncertain economic future for the state pose challenges for Machen as he seeks money for a second year in a row to fund pay raises for 4,000 or so faculty.
    "We're going in with that as our highest priority," Machen said during a meeting at his office in Tigert Hall. "I have no idea what the climate is, but it's my commitment to make that happen."
    As state lawmakers prepare the budget in the spring, Machen and others in higher education will be working behind the scenes to try to convince legislators that the universities can be trusted to name their own buildings and set their own tuition rates, duties now entrusted solely to the Legislature.
    But higher tuitions place an additional drain on the state's Bright Futures scholarship program, something some lawmakers will fight against.
    The search for a new provost has begun. David Colburn, who had been appointed to the position by former President Charles Young in 1999, stepped down in mid-December. Joe Glover, associate provost for academic affairs, will be the acting provost until a new one is named in the first half of the year.
    A vice president for human resources - a new position created by Machen - is also expected to be selected early this year.
    Off campus, the university likely will join forces with the community to combat drug and alcohol problems associated with college students, Machen said.
    "We're going to weigh in," Machen said. "It's a problem for the whole community."
  • ALACHUA COUNTY MUNICIPALITIES: In the small cities surrounding Gainesville, issues relating to growth and development promise to again be hot topics.
    Most of the cities, especially High Springs, Newberry and Alachua, wrangled with issues such as infrastructure and land planning last year to respond to proposals for large-scale residential and commercial centers.
    In 2003, Alachua city commissioners approved a Wal-Mart distribution center at County Road 235A and Peggy Road after months of protests from residents who said it could taint the city's water supply and clog its roads with truck traffic.
    This year, Alachua could see a request to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the city. Some in the city - including the Alachua Chamber of Commerce - who applauded the new jobs to be created by the distribution center said they were leery about the effect a supercenter could have on the city's small businesses.
    Alachua also plans to break ground on its new city municipal building in 2005, City Manager Clovis Watson said.
    High Springs and Newberry both saw residential housing proposals on a scale larger than they had previously handled.
    Newberry commissioners also will handle a proposed expansion of the Florida Rock Industries cement plant.
    High Springs city commissioners will likely spend their first meeting of 2005 discussing Tillman Acres, a residential housing proposal that would build hundreds of new homes on what's now farmland. The original proposal would have increased the city's population by 50 percent at build-out, though new proposals call for fewer homes.
  • THE REGION: Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle plans to continue looking worldwide for a new weapons testing range in 2005 after being rebuked by one of its targeted locations in 2004.
    The Air Force proposed developing a 100-square-mile test range somewhere along the coast of Levy, Dixie or Taylor counties that would serve as a target for weapons fired from hundreds of miles away over the Gulf of Mexico. The counties were considered because of their long sections of undeveloped coastline.
    Levy County was quickly removed from the list because of its proximity to the nuclear power plant in Crystal River.
    Taylor County residents tried to remove their county by overwhelmingly voting against the testing range idea in November.
    Despite the opposition, Lt. Kristen Duncan said the search for an appropriate testing site will continue.
    "The need is still there to test weapons in real-world situations and basically we will once again be looking all over the world," Duncan said.
    Dixie County commissioners who passed a resolution opposing the testing range said they will be monitoring the military's search for another test site in 2005.
  • SCHOOLS: The new year looms as the third year under the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal law that asks schools to improve test scores yearly, or else.
    While three of four Alachua County schools earned a grade of A or B from the state this year, about 80 percent failed to meet standards of the No Child Left Behind.
    The failure carries consequences only for high-poverty schools that receive federal assistance. Last year, students were allowed to transfer away from 15 such elementary schools. Out of about 6,000 students eligible, just 110 chose to transfer, district staff reported.
    More families could opt for this year's likely punishment, which is for schools to offer free after-school tutoring starting in fall 2005.
    The state's prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds will debut in the fall. Voters in 2002 approved a constitutional amendment for the program.
    Any child who will be 4 as of Sept. 1 will qualify for pre-kindergarten.
    The goal is for parents to start filling out pre-K applications as early as February or March. The voluntary program - offered either as a three-hour-a-day school-year program or a 300-hour summer program - is to be offered in public and private facilities, including church preschools.
    This also is the first full year under the leadership of new Schools Superintendent Dan Boyd.
    Members of the Alachua County School Board say this may be the year the district organizes an effort to ask voters to approve a new sales tax or property tax to benefit schools.
  • CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Funding issues continue to top concerns in Florida's criminal justice system.
    Both Public Defender Rick Parker and State Attorney Bill Cervone will be looking to the Florida Legislature for help with staffing and salaries this new year. Retaining experienced attorneys has been a problem when, they say, salaries are higher for entry level jobs for lawyers at other governmental agencies.
    Keeping experienced lawyers, Parker said, impacts the service clients receive and the amount of work other employees must do.
    "I'm just asking them to do way more than what any person reasonably is expected to do," Parker said about dealing with his current staffing situation.
    Questions over who should pick up the bill for some criminal justice costs - the state or counties - are still lingering and will confront legislators again this year.
    Lawmakers will revisit the issue of who should pay for housing juveniles awaiting trial after a judge declared unconstitutional a law that had counties paying the costs. The law had passed the expense to local governments after court-operating costs were shifted from counties to the state following a 1998 constitutional amendment.
    The juvenile pretrial costs would have cost the state's 67 counties an estimated $90 million. Alachua County had set aside $1.2 million to pay for the county's juvenile detention center.
    Upcoming trials include the first-degree murder case of Tavares Williams. The 21-year-old is accused of killing University of Florida research analyst Barbara Roth in 2002. Roth, who was Williams' guardian, was found dead in her apartment on Jan. 25, 2002. Investigators said she was repeatedly struck with a baseball bat.
  • LAW ENFORCEMENT: A main goal of Alachua County Sheriff Steve Oelrich will be to reduce traffic fatalities.
    "We are going to be issuing citations, especially for the most egregious violations," said sheriff's Lt. Jim Troiano.
    Troiano said speeding, heavy traffic, failure to wear seatbelts and faulty vehicles were among the major reasons the fatalities in 2004.
    Troiano said the Sheriff's Office will strictly enforce violators who speed 15 mph or more over the limit. Seatbelt laws will also get increased enforcement.
    Gainesville Police Officer Art Atkins said Chief Norman Botsford's main goal is to increase community-oriented policing. Atkins said the typically high turnover of residents in university towns means officers must frequently make new connections and partnerships.
    "You can never meet too many people. You can never have too many neighborhood watch meetings. There are just a lot of folks to liaison with," he said.
    Atkins said GPD also will boost its technology.
    In June, GPD received 275 laptop computers that can be used in cars. The computers will help officers to prioritize their calls and save time to meet more people in the community, he said.
  • MEDICINE: Florida voters in November approved three amendments to the state Constitution related to medical malpractice.
    Now legislators, regulators and the courts must wrestle with how to enforce the intent of the voters.
    One amendment will revoke the medical license of any doctor who is hit with three malpractice judgments. But will it apply to past cases, or only to future ones?
    Legal experts say it will unleash a flood of suits, while doctors contend it will either scare physicians away from Florida or force them to reach a quick settlement.
    The amendment is on hold while the Legislature spells out just how it would work.
    Doctors had their own malpractice measure on the ballot, and it too passed. It will limit how much of a malpractice award can go to the lawyer who takes the case.
    A third measure to be implemented says patients have the right the review a doctor or hospital's records of "adverse medical incidents." But federal privacy laws limit how much information can be released about a patient.
    Bill Bell, general counsel for the Florida Hospital Association, said the amendments are very broad and vaguely written.
    "It's hard for an individual doctor or hospital to understand what they mean and how they relate to other laws," Bell said.
    The FHA is seeking a temporary injunction to stop both the open-records and three-strikes amendments until the intent is made clear.
    Alexander Clem, president of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers, said the intent is to give people more information and get rid of bad doctors.
    Still, Clem admits that nobody has all the answers when it comes to interpreting the new amendments.
    Contributing to this report were staff writers Jeff Adelson, Diane Chun, Lise Fisher, Douane James, Meredith Mandell, Amy Reinink, Janine Young Sikes and Karen Voyles.
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