County vision quest

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 11:12 p.m.

OK, you got what you wanted. Alachua County's property taxes are now lower thanks to action by the state Legislature and voters who boosted the homestead exemption.

Now comes the hard part - what do you think the county should do to cope with less money? What should be the top priorities? What is the county's responsibility to the public in a time of shrinking revenue? How can the county help residents despite less money?

Thoughts, ideas and suggestions are what County Manager Randall Reid wants from the public in his Alternative Futures initiative.

"We are obviously facing a prolonged period of fiscal distress. You can talk about the little things - we would like you to cut this or we would like you to make these expenditures - and it is totally appropriate to do those things," Reid said. "But the real issue - a discussion that I hope will be throughout the community - is what kind of alternative future is there going to be for Alachua County? What is the alternative future when they have altered the fundamental source of local government - the property tax?"

Suggestions are already coming in via e-mail, conversations in the coffee shop and other means.

Some are hopeful.

"...we vote for a stronger and a more compassionate 'community,'" wrote Bill and Rae Marie Gilbert.

Others are more dire.

"An estimated 40 percent of County citizens feel totally alienated from County government, and as you know I am one of them," wrote Ron Thornton.

All will be compiled for consideration by the Alachua County Commission and will be discussed at community meetings, possibly in March.

The county's current budget has about $111.7 million in local taxes, down from $117.4 million last year.

The drop in revenue is due primarily to action by the Florida Legislature to limit the amount of property tax the county can collect and to the voter-approved increase in the homestead exemption.

Property taxes this year account for about 34 percent of the county's $329.6 million budget.

Commissioners have raised some charges and fees, such as impact fees on new development, to try to boost revenue.

The county's biggest expense is public safety - the sheriff's office, fire-rescue and disaster relief. It accounts for 32.6 percent of the total budget and 48 percent of the general fund, which is primarily property taxes.

Reid said that with property tax revenue capped and the sales tax an unstable revenue source, the county must find new ways to govern if it wants to meet public needs.

So he wants to find out what those needs are.

"It is my sense that we are in the process of redefining what is normal in revenue. There may be fundamental changes afoot," Reid said. "We want citizens' involvement. Citizens have different perspectives. Some may want community-wide health care and others may not like the fact that any (county employee) gets a car to take home. Some people are oriented about children, and some are not. Whatever they say is OK."

Some of the recommendations coming in are to be expected - fix roads, curb sprawl, cut energy costs.

Others are move novel including one from Jim Notestein, a community activist and county commissioner in the 1980s who has been through similar exercises in the past. One resulted in the creation of the downtown Gainesville farmers' market.

In a similar vein, Notestein has suggested to Reid that the county consider community farming programs as an future alternative to help promote a local food supply. For instance, if the state closes the Dudley Farm Historic Park near Newberry, it could be turned into a working farm.

"That can be a gateway facility to demonstrate what Randy is talking about, the need to establish the reliability of our food supplies," Notestein said. "We can pick out our frontier spots and beat the drum - come see Alachua County, leave money and footprints, take pictures and go home."

More recent community-input initiatives have had some success. In 2004 the County Commission created the 20-member Blue Ribbon Finance Committee, which spent months studying ways to make county government more efficient.

The committee in 2005 released a report that recommended restructuring to bring the elected constitutional officers such as the sheriff and property appraiser under the financial control of the county.

Also recommended were cutting property taxes while raising other sorts of fees.

Committee chairman Barry Rutenberg said he believes some good came of the effort.

"A number of the proposals did manifest themselves. For instance, a lot of the road repaving that has been done in the last year and a half or two years comes out of the Blue Ribbon Committee," Rutenberg said. "There are other identifiable projects that have happened that we brought to light. There are other ideas that did not gain traction."

A series of meetings will be held by Reid to which residents who responded to Reid will be specifically invited along with others who have been involved in the past.

Commissioners will eventually get a set of recommendations from Reid.

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