Published: Friday, April 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 31, 2005 at 10:58 p.m.
It was almost comical listening to county commissioners the other day try to set stringent conditions before they would agree to support future Gainesville annexations.
The county wants to keep its fire stations regardless. If Gainesville wants to annex to the west, then it's got to annex to the east as well. And, oh yes, displaced county employees should be able to keep their salaries and benefits when hired by Gainesville.
So what's funny about that? While county officials seemingly obsess over big bad Gainesville's annexation policies, they have historically met small-city annexations with a wink and a nod.
Out beyond the metro area, towns like Alachua, Newberry, Archer and High Springs have been able to annex great swaths of land - most of it destined for future subdivision use - with barely a murmur of protest from county government.
In truth, county commissioners can demand that Gainesville provide a "high degree of urban services" for the areas it seeks to annex only because Gainesville is a full-service city capable of doing so.
Most of the smaller towns simply haven't the fiscal means to provide urban-level services. But that hasn't stopped many of them from annexing far beyond their capabilities to support growth.
All of which raises an interesting question: What does it mean to be a "city"?
Is it merely the ability to elect a commission? Of being able to muster a volunteer fire department? Is a city a city because it can offer developers less stringent rules than the county might impose? Or should cities be reasonably expected to provide some level of municipal services?
County commissioners now have the opportunity to begin to answer that question now that the county has successfully defended itself against a suit by Sheriff Steve Oelrich, who wanted to have his urban road patrol funded out of the county's general fund instead of the MSTU tax.
The general fund is paid by all county residents, whether or not they live in the cities. The MSTU is paid only by residents of the unincorporated areas.
County commissioners decided that forcing Gainesville residents to pay with their general fund tax dollars for deputy patrols in the unincorporated areas was an unfair subsidy, since Gainesville residents already fund their own police department through city taxes.
The courts agreed and the sheriff lost his suit to fund his urban road patrols out of the general fund. But that legal decision raises yet another question.
If it's unfair to ask Gainesville residents to subsidize deputy patrols in the unincorporated areas, isn't it also unfair to ask unincorporated MSTU-paying residents to subsidize ASO patrols in Hawthorne, Newberry, Micanopy, LaCrosse and Archer - towns that do not have their own police departments?
Once upon a time, Newberry, Archer and Hawthorne did contract with ASO for deputy patrol services. But Oelrich stopped collecting that money.
Now, having prevailed in court on principle, county commissioners must confront the question of what to do about small towns that are getting police protection courtesy of MSTU tax-paying unincorporated residents.
"To me, the smaller cities are leeching us dry," Alison Law, a Tower Road area resident who has been leading discussions about the future of that heavily populated suburban area, recently told The Sun.
For the record, we believe that a unified city-county is preferable to the continued Balkanization of public services in Alachua County. Unification would end all the feuding about who should pay for what service out of which pot of money.
Unfortunately, there appears to be little interest in unification among either county or municipal elected officials.
So if the County Commission wants to talk about Gainesville's annexation obligations, fine. But they also need to talk about what it ought to mean to be a city.
Deciding who should pay for police patrols inside the limits of incorporated cities seems to be a logical starting point in that discussion.
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