Trust seeks projects for proposed sales tax


Published: Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 7:02 a.m.

Community and political leaders will begin developing a list of projects for park and conservation land, schools and roads that could be on a potential sales tax referendum in November 2008.

That was the upshot of a Wednesday meeting held by the Trust for Public Land, which will poll residents on projects to learn whether a referendum is viable.

"If the polling comes back and says the people aren't willing to do much of anything . . . we will certainly deliver that message," said Trust consultant and Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan.

The exploration of a sales tax referendum was started months ago by residents and officials trying to find ways to raise money for roads, land conservation, parks and schools.

Attention was heightened recently when the Alachua County Commission voted to link an impact fee increase to the potential referendum by delaying its implementation. If the initiative were successful next year, the fee increase would be dropped.

That created a backlash from residents who pledged to actively oppose the sales tax referendum unless the fee increase was implemented sooner. The commission reversed itself and voted to start the fee increase in March.

The Trust is a land conservation group that works with cities and counties on funding for purchases through sales taxes, property taxes and other means.

Data collected by the Trust shows that in 2006, 180 land-conservation measures were on ballots throughout the U.S. Of those, 134 - about 74 percent - passed. From 2002 to 2006 the passage rate ranged from 74 percent to 79 percent.

"The message here is that voters across America and Florida, given the opportunity, will vote for land conservation measures," said Will Abberger, Trust conservation vision director. "In Florida, a growing state, people can see things disappearing before their eyes. Nationally, three out of four of these pass. In Florida, it's 80 percent."

In 2000, Alachua County voters passed a property tax for the Alachua County Forever land conservation program. That money is about to run out.

The report estimates a half-cent sales tax would raise about $21 million a year and cost an Alachua County household about $44.47 a year. The numbers double for a 1-cent tax.

A key decision will concern the scope of the effort - what, if any, combination of conservation land, park land, schools, roads or other projects would the public support.

While the public generally supports land conservation measures, Abberger said, the chances of a referendum's success goes down when the scope is broadened.

"The biggest problem is, if there is any doubt - if there is part of it they don't like - they will say, 'Better safe than sorry' and vote no," Abberger said. "All (the opposition) has to do is throw out a little bit of doubt - I don't trust the County Commission, we have too much land already."

Residents and public officials will be formed into groups to develop a list of potential projects within the main areas of schools, roads, parks, conservation lands and other public facilities such as a jail expansion.

They will come together to pare the list down to the most viable options. Polling will then be done to try to gauge support.

This phase should be completed within a few months.

The County Commission will have to vote to put the measure on the ballot but the job of selling the initiative will fall heavily on interested residents.

"We need a list that will work for everybody because at the end of the day, we will all have to agree that it is a great list and to stand up and work for it," said former County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson of the Alachua Conservation Trust.

Cindy Swirko can be reached at 352-374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.

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