One community

Published: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 22, 2005 at 11:32 p.m.
What a surprise! Reportedly, consultants will soon recommend that the County Commission consider merging its fire department with Gainesville's.
That's not exactly a novel idea. There has been talk about merging city and county fire and rescue services for years. A couple of elections back, voters even decisively urged such a merger in a nonbinding straw poll.
But it seldom gets past the talking stage. In some years, the City Commission nixes the idea. In some years, the County Commission rejects it. Turf protection trumps common sense every time.
Meanwhile, the cost of operating fire and rescue continues to climb, and the idea of maintaining two separate bureaucracies in the same metro area becomes more and more untenable.
Oh yes, and prepare for another round of discussions about the joint emergency communications center. The city and county, in an uncommon display of cooperation, merged their emergency dispatch systems several years ago under the supervision of the sheriff. But ever since then, the management of the center has been the subject of city-county bickering. Look for more of the same.
And city commissioners have begun to talk about being more aggressive in promoting annexation of its suburbs. You know what that means: County deputies and firefighters will soon be standing on street corners and knocking on doors, urging unincorporated residents to defeat annexation and protect their jobs.
If this all seems like deja vu, it's because we've been down this road many times before: endless talks about fire mergers, disputes over police jurisdictions and annexation wars. Intergovernmental service agreements come together and then begin to slowly unravel.
Against this backdrop, some residents in the Tower Road area have begun to talk about whether they are getting their money's worth from a county-run metro government that can't seem to provide adequate parks and recreation, transportation improvements and other urban services. Those discussions might lead to yet another round of annexation votes, or perhaps even an attempt to form a brand new city in west Gainesville.
Just what Alachua County needs, another municipality.
We have a better idea.
If citizens want to talk about better government and more efficient use of their tax dollars, we would suggest that neither piecemeal annexation nor the creation of new local governments is the way to go.
Instead, consider the proposition that less government really is better. That's what taxpayers in Jacksonville, Nashville, Tenn., Lexington, Ky., Athens, Augusta and Columbus, Ga., and several other progressive cities in America discovered after they opted to merge their city and county governments into one unified local service provider.
We believe Gainesville and Alachua County have a unique opportunity to create a truly great university community by merging Gainesville and Alachua County into a unified metro government (with the smaller municipalities having the option to opt in or retain their independence). Doing so would not only allow for more efficient provision of public services, but it would result in better growth management and future land- use planning.
And now is an opportune time to begin a public dialogue on unification, with an eye toward taking a proposed charter to the voters in the 2006 general election.
We can spend the next several years talking about merging city and county fire and rescue. We can watch the emergency dispatch center agreement unravel. We can replay the annexation debate over whether suburban residents are better served by police officers wearing green or police officers wearing blue.
Or we can begin to talk about merging the City Commission and the County Commission into a unified commission, a single act of political consolidation that would automatically merge all of the service functions under a single government charter.
We believe the time is ripe for a citizens movement to unify Gainesville and Alachua County governments. Whether it begins on Tower Road or elsewhere, it is a public debate well worth having. Years of bitter experience tell us that the citizens and taxpayers are not being well-served by the status quo.
We are one community artificially riven by two local governments. We can do better.

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