After road tax defeat, county and city leaders look to 2014 ballot
Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 6:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 6:17 p.m.
Alachua County voters on Tuesday killed the "Fix Our Roads" sales tax referendum, leaving the County Commission no way to pay for the bulk of its $550 million countywide backlog in road repairs.
Now, members of the Gainesville City Commission, which opposed the ¾-cent initiative, and members of the County Commission hope to develop a new plan for the 2014 ballot that will pass muster with voters.
Gainesville City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins, who opposed the referendum, said he is open to working with the county to reach a better solution. He said the initiative's defeat showed voters want elected officials to cooperate on developing a holistic transportation solution that includes both road repair and transit.
"This tax didn't represent either of those two things, and that was the death knell," Hawkins said. "The go-it-alone strategy is one that won't work."
The backlog is too large to resolve without a sales tax since a property tax doesn't raise as much money, County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said. But it will take at least two more years to get a sales tax for roads.
He suggested that the conversation about a new roads initiative start now because the problem won't get cheaper with time.
County Commissioner Susan Baird said there is little chance the commission will allocate additional money within its budget — which already has been slimmed down — to reduce the backlog as it faces declining property tax revenues. In the meantime, that backlog will only grow as road quality continues to decline.
Baird said voters opposed the referendum because they don't trust the commission with more taxpayer money.
But it appears they trust the Alachua County School Board with it — at least for the next five years.
Voters on Tuesday approved the renewal of a one-mill property tax for schools, a shorter-term measure that will run through July 2017, by almost the same margin with which voters rejected the roads tax.
The one-mill initiative passed with 68.42 percent of the vote and 31.58 percent against, while the roads referendum went down with 67.36 percent of votes against it and 32.64 percent of votes for it, according to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office.
One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of a property's taxable value.
Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson, elected Tuesday to the County Commission, said the county must return to the drawing board and develop a roads plan that addresses voters' concerns.
Voters determined that Alachua County would likely continue down a familiar path politically Tuesday when they elected Democrats to all three open County Commission seats.
But Hutchinson said he wouldn't forget the ideas their conservative opponents — Jean Calderwood, Dean Cheshire and John Martin — promoted on the campaign trail, such as streamlining growth management regulations or using alternative revenue sources to pay for the Community Agency Partnership Program, which supports local nonprofits.
"It's not like we had a bunch of hard-core right-wingers and hard-core left-wingers running out there," Hutchinson said. "We're all centrists with small degrees of separation between us, and I found myself often listening and agreeing with my conservative opponents."
Hutchinson said mitigating the rate impacts of the biomass plant is a key concern moving forward, although he said he thinks the project has long-term merit.
"We have a long history of over-exaggerating the ultimate impact of these things, but it's clear in the short term it's going to have a dire impact on some people," he said.
Baird agreed that reducing the plant's impact on county ratepayers is vital.
Pinkoson said he was encouraged that incoming Commissioners Hutchinson and Charles S. "Chuck" Chestnut IV cited economic development as an important aim. Pinkoson said he hopes to focus on generating jobs for residents who don't have advanced degrees.
Hutchinson, along with Chestnut and re-elected Commissioner Mike Byerly, are expected to bring leadership to the county that is similar to past years, but Hutchinson insisted that doesn't mean they will ignore conservative proposals.
"It will be a progressive majority, but I think that's a good thing — and part of being a progressive is listening to every good idea that comes along," he said.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or email@example.com.