Wild Spaces backers eye new support

Published: Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 11:14 p.m.

Eleven months before the Wild Spaces & Public Places half-cent sales tax expires, talks are under way about the possibility of a voter referendum on another sales tax to follow directly on its heels.

Robert Hutchinson, executive director of the Alachua Conservation Trust, said discussions have included representatives of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Trust for Public Land, the Builders Association of North Central Florida and land-use attorney David Coffey.

"No group has officially endorsed this," he said of the potential sales tax.

Hutchinson said the Alachua Conservation Trust, a nonprofit land conservation organization, will soon hire a polling to measure voter support for a half-cent sales tax to replace the Wild Spaces & Public Places tax, which sunsets at the end of this year. He declined to identify the polling firm under consideration.

If polling shows voter support, he said a referendum could be put on the November ballot either through a voter petition drive or by a vote of the County Commission.

During Tuesday's regular County Commission meeting, Commissioner Rodney Long supported the idea of "letting the voters make a choice on whether to tax themselves."

During a Friday budget retreat, commissioners debated whether or not they should put the referendum to voters if a petition drive fails to get the required signatures.

Long and Paula DeLaney said that they would not rule out that option before they learn more details about projects the tax could fund.

Commissioner Mike Byerly said he would not vote to put a referendum to voters if it included road and parks projects that add to the county's long-term maintenance costs.

Hutchinson said talks on a potential sales tax have focused on funding projects that fall into five general categories: land conservation; solar and energy efficiency projects on public properties; transportation improvements such as construction of bus rapid transit lanes or widening of congested roadways; and construction of infrastructure improvements for economic development projects.

Hutchinson said those economic development projects could include redevelopment of the Shands AGH property near downtown Gainesville in an attempt to draw a major employer or the redevelopment of the county's current 105-acre fairgrounds property off Northeast 39th Avenue and Northeast Waldo Road into a business/commerce park.

The county's current sales tax rate is 6- 3/4 cents on the dollar.

That rate ranks 20th among Florida's 67 counties, according to Florida Legislative Committee on Intergovernmental Relations' figures.

The county's current sales tax includes two voter-approved tax increases: the quarter-cent added in 2004 for the county's CHOICES health services program and the half-cent Wild Spaces & Public Places tax for conservation land purchases and recreation projects approved in November 2008.

Both taxes were narrowly approved. The tax funding CHOICES passed by a mere 85 votes in the August 2004 primary. It expires at the end of 2011.

The Wild Spaces & Public Places tax passed with 51.5 percent of the votes cast in 2008. Initially expected to generate more than $39 million, it is now projected to bring in about $30 million during its two-year life.

In the November 2004 general election, referendums on a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects and a half-cent sales tax for parks and recreation projects both failed.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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