Commissioners float idea of a tax to pay for roads and buildings


Published: Friday, October 18, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 18, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.

Since the Fix Our Roads transportation surtax referendum failed last November, the Alachua County Commission has focused on how to garner voter support for a similar 2014 ballot initiative that would reduce its road repair backlog.

But at its quarterly retreat Friday, commissioners considered whether a sales tax that could be used to fund infrastructure in general — both roads and much-needed county building projects — would be a better option.

The county supervisor of elections, public defender and medical examiner all need new buildings, Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said Friday at the retreat, which was held in the Alachua County Freedom Community Center in Gainesville.

The county has been developing plans for a transportation sales surtax that would be devoted to funding transportation projects, but a sales tax dedicated to pay for infrastructure in general could pay for some road projects as well as new buildings for those officials.

“This is just food for thought at this point in time,” Pinkoson said.

Switching to an infrastructure initiative would change the conversation that the county has been having with the public in recent months regarding a transportation referendum, Pinkoson said, but these space needs are immediate.

“We're changing the conversation because of things we are responsible for that we have to get taken care of soon,” he said.

The cities may prefer this option because it would give them more flexibility in how they use their portion of the revenue, he said.

Commissioner Mike Byerly said it could be even harder to persuade voters to approve an infrastructure sales tax because the funding would be split between county transportation and building projects. It's difficult to imagine they would support funding buildings they don't use often when they didn't vote for a tax last year that would have been used for the roads they drive on every day, Byerly said.

Dave Cerlanek with Public Works told the commission that the county is funding transportation maintenance at about half of staff's recommended level. The fiscal year 2013-14 operations and maintenance budget for transportation totals about $12.3 million, but staff suggests an annual allocation of $26.1 million.

The fiscal year 2014 maintenance budget of around $12.3 million breaks down to about $6.3 million for routine maintenance, which includes pothole and ditch repair, and almost $5.2 million for capital maintenance, which includes road resurfacing. However, almost $4.5 million of that capital maintenance money is for debt service.

Cerlanek asked the board to consider how it could increase funding for routine maintenance starting in fiscal year 2015 through resources it controls, such as with general fund and municipal services taxing unit money or special assessment districts.

Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said it may come down to telling residents that funding the county's transportation needs comes down to either implementing a sales tax or raising property tax rates.

Pinkoson agreed, saying he doesn't want it to come off like a threat but that the reality of the situation is that the county needs to pay for this one way or another.

Commissioner Susan Baird cautioned against raising property tax rates too high, particularly to the maximum at which rates are capped, to fund these projects. Taxpayers would revolt, she said.

The commission didn't decide Friday whether it should abandon plans for a transportation surtax referendum to switch to an infrastructure sales tax initiative for November 2014, but that debate may resurface in future discussions.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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