Poll: Area supports sales tax increase

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 12:15 a.m.

A majority of Alachua County voters would support a half-cent sales tax increase to raise money for land conservation, roads and schools in a referendum this year, according to a poll to help county leaders decide if they want to launch an initiative.

The poll was done April 21-22 and queried 400 county voters on whether they would support a variety of projects, said Will Abberger, Florida program director of the Trust for Public Land, which conducted the survey.

Abberger said some programs fared better than others but would not say which had the most support.

"The results showed there was a pretty strong majority support of the sales tax - a half-cent - for roads, schools and land conservation. We are still digesting the results and not really ready to publicly release them yet. I don't really want to get into the details yet until we figure out what it all means," Abberger said. "We are in the process of briefing folks internally who are interested in supporting the sales tax and hope to be talking to county commissioners very soon about trying to get something on the ballot."

The poll results are a key factor in a quest for money by different groups. The effort is complicated by competition, the state's tax-cutting efforts, politics and deadlines for getting a measure on the November ballot.

An analysis and discussion of the results should begin this week, said Brent Christensen, president of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has coordinated the effort while the Trust, which assists local government with initiatives, did the polling.

"There are still a lot of moving parts that have to be analyzed. I don't know where we are headed. Given the time frame, we will have to make some decisions relatively quickly here," Christensen said. "We have a good start. It's just making sure that the right things are in there, that nothing in there causes great controversy, and that every part of our community is touched by the benefit of these funds."

Representatives from various interest groups began talking about a sales tax referendum last year. Among them were builders, who believe money for roads is crucial to growth; land conservation advocates, who want a continued funding source for Alachua County Forever; and the school district, which wants money for new schools and for renovations.

Others joined in with proposed projects to be included in the poll. Alachua County, for instance, floated the idea of raising money to expand the jail.

Meanwhile, advocates of centers for senior citizens have discussed a sales tax referendum separate from the chamber effort.

Alachua County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, who is among those studying the idea, said no decisions have been made on whether a senior center initiative will be put forward or when. Advocates wrote in a guest column in The Sun that they planned a Spring 2009 referendum.

"We're still in the planning stages, so we haven't made a definite decision yet," Chestnut said. "We are just trying to gauge how the economy is going."

The column writers, including Chestnut and Gainesville City Commissioner Jack Donovan, said they believe projects should be considered individually by voters. They wrote that negative views on projects tend to be cumulative and lead to the defeat of the whole.

Chestnut championed the CHOICES sales tax - a quarter-cent for seven years. It was narrowly passed by voters and has since generated some backlash because of lower than expected enrollment considering the amount of money that was raised. The current balance is about $32.5 million with 1,250 participants.

Several commissioners and community leaders have concerns over whether voters will approve another tax referendum as long as CHOICES is still collecting money. The CHOICES tax will end in 2011.

Among the issues that will have to be decided by the chamber group is whether transportation, land conservation and schools should be included in a single initiative.

Another key issue is whether the initiative should be on the 2008 ballot.

Alachua County Elections Supervisor Pam Carpenter said that if a referendum is sought this year, she would like to have the ballot language by June 20.

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

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