City, county open talks on roads tax
Published: Monday, August 12, 2013 at 10:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 12, 2013 at 10:52 p.m.
Trust — both among officials and in the community — was a recurring theme Monday as the Alachua County Commission and Gainesville City Commission hashed out several issues revolving around the transportation surtax referendum they plan to bring before voters in November 2014.
County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson asked his fellow officials to stop rehashing the past and focus on moving forward. The county and city commissions clashed last year over the Fix Our Roads initiative, a ¾-cent sales surtax that would have put a sizable dent in the county's roughly $550 million backlog in road repairs.
The county has invited input from the cities within its borders as well as from the community at large as it tries to learn from the failure of that referendum, which voters rejected last November.
The City Commission eventually opposed the 2012 initiative. Its board members were concerned when the county dropped plans for a penny surtax that could have generated revenue to fund bus rapid transit and other transportation plans and went with a ¾-cent roads surtax instead, leaving a ¼-cent transit surtax for potential use later on.
City Commissioner Todd Chase, however, said forgetting the past isn't really an option.
"See, the problem with being through something is that if you have a decent memory, you remember it, and there is a lot of fiction about the last process," he said.
County Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV said he understood Chase's frustration but was troubled by the lack of trust between the boards on the dais Monday evening.
"... How in the world do you think the citizens are going to vote for something when we don't trust each other?" he asked.
Multiple commissioners, in particular County Commissioner Mike Byerly, emphasized that the boards have several key decisions to make. Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy, however, said they shouldn't be rushed to make all those choices now because of how important this issue clearly is, if the packed benches before the dais at the start of Monday's meeting was any indication.
Toward the end of the meeting after a motion failed and commissioners continued to debate the details, Braddy suggested the boards reconvene at a later date. Byerly disagreed and emphasized the need to make some choices after six hours of discussion (seven by the time it was over), during which he said he had heard no new ideas but rather a reiteration of the boards' past discussions.
The City Commission was actually the first board to make a decision, approving a motion directing city staff to draw up a list of transportation projects it would like to fund with its portion of the tax revenue and bring it before the board in the near future.
At the end of the meeting, which ran from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m., the County Commission made a couple of choices.
It designated a funding split that gives equal shares of the revenue to Gainesville and the unincorporated county while dividing the rest among the remaining municipalities in a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Susan Baird and Chestnut in dissent.
It also voted to direct the county attorney to draft an ordinance including ballot language for the referendum in a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Chestnut and Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson in dissent.
A county motion to set an eight-year term for the referendum failed.
During Monday's meeting, commissioners heard from Phil Leazer, the program manager for the Pennies for Progress program in York County, S.C., which raises sales tax revenue to fund roadway projects. Leazer said the first program was approved with 51 percent of the vote in 1997, a percentage that rose with its second renewal and reached 82 percent for its third incarnation in 2011.
York County solicited support from all local governmental agencies as well as from the public at large, Leazer said. It also established a Sales Tax Commission made up of local citizens to help with the program.
Leazer said the county built trust over the years among its residents by keeping its promises regarding how it would spend the tax money.
Pinkoson said the York County program sounded promising, particularly its success in attracting community buy-in. A couple other commissioners also spoke positively of it.
He said he thought an eight-year timeframe for the penny tax sounded good and highlighted the need to earn the public's confidence by laying out what it plans to accomplish with the revenue and following through with it.
Baird said that eight years of revenue, if they can win voters' support, would be better than none.
It would, however, fall short of the 15-year run proposed by last year's Fix Our Roads referendum, which 67.32 percent of voters opposed.
A penny tax would generate about $30 million in countywide revenue per year, according to a county staff presentation.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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