Referendums focus on road repair, school needs


Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 2:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 2:10 p.m.

Alachua County voters will decide Nov. 6 whether they will pay more to repair local roads and continue to finance school programs.

The “Fix Our Roads” referendum asks voters to approve a 15-year, three-fourths-cent sales surtax that supporters say would reduce a $550 million countywide road backlog by funding at least $300 million in repairs.

It would increase the sales tax to 6.75 percent and bring in about $22.5 million annually, of which the county would receive 57.65 percent, or $12.97 million, according to fixourroads.alachuacounty.us.

Gainesville would get about $5.5 million and the county’s eight remaining municipalities would share the rest.

County Commissioner Susan Baird, who supports the referendum, said one upside is that visitors would pay 15 to 30 percent of the surtax.

There is no ideal time for a new tax, she said, but the roads are getting worse. Repairs become more expensive over time as pavement deteriorates. The county’s average pavement age is 24 years.

The Gainesville City Commission approved a September resolution opposing the referendum in a 5-0 vote, with Commissioners Yvonne Hinson-Rawls and Todd Chase absent.

The commissioners were upset because the County Commission abandoned a 1-cent transportation surtax that could have helped fund bus rapid transit. Instead, it split the penny into the three-fourths-cent roads surtax and a one-fourth-cent transit surtax that could be voted on later.

City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said the revenue wouldn’t be fairly distributed. Gainesville comprises just over half the county’s population but would receive only 24.31 percent of the revenue.

“It’s very real and it’s a very legitimate need,” he said of the county’s backlog. “But it still is not right for it to be paid for on the back of the Gainesville taxpayers.”

County Commissioner Mike Byerly, who is up for re-election, doesn’t support it either, because he wants to develop a new surtax for the 2014 ballot with local governments’ cooperation.

County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, who supports the referendum, said the county would fund repairs on roads that run through Gainesville and thus benefit city residents.

Roads are the county’s primary problem, but for Gainesville, bus rapid transit is key, Hawkins said. He also said the repairs-only surtax ignores the need to reduce traffic congestion by, for example, widening roads.

Pinkoson said there are too many unanswered questions about bus rapid transit, which is included in the Alachua County Comprehensive Plan, to ask voters to finance it now.

Voters will also decide the fate of a one-mill property tax for schools currently on the books that will sunset in June 2013 if it is not renewed. One mill equals to $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value.

In 2008, 63.45 percent of voters approved the tax, which according to the district has brought in $35 million to pay for 150 teachers, classroom technology, guidance counselors and arts and music programs.

Stafford Jones, Alachua County Republican Party chairman, said the party has not taken an official stance on the issue but he feels members generally oppose the school tax measure.

“A lot of people believe that the school system could do better as far as shifting more resources from administrative to the classroom,” he said.

The Alachua County School Board cannot legally encourage constituents to vote, but it has not shied away from releasing information about where the one mill money has gone.

The district sent home letters in May outlining programs that benefited from the tax, posted information on its website and produced six informational videos that feature interviews with teachers and students to show where the money has gone. The videos are posted on the School Board’s website.

Jackie Johnson, spokeswoman for Alachua County Public Schools, worked on producing the videos, which she said did not cost the district.

“They’re strictly informational, so people know how the one mill is spent,” she said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com and Joey Flechas at 338-3166 or joey.flechas@gvillesun.com.

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