Organizers for a movement known as Springs County continue to display banners and signs, operate a welcome center and meet regularly on Facebook, but state Sen. Keith Perry says the creation of a new county most likely won't happen.
Perry, a conservative Republican, was asked about the Springs County effort at a meeting on Feb. 11 by homeowners who are advocating for Alachua County to keep the West End Golf course property zoned recreational. They directly asked Sen. Perry if he thought Springs County would become a reality.
"Never going to happen," Perry responded before explaining why to the group of 20 Friends of West End members.
"Sheriff, public school system, their own courthouse," Perry listed. "You look at that infrastructure, you're talking about multiple, multiple millions and millions and millions of dollars.
"That's why the last time that was done was Gilchrist County and Alachua County 100 years ago," Perry explained.
"I hate to be Debbie Downer for the people who really want it," he said. "I think it's a referendum they can do, but can they come up with 100 million dollars and start their own school system and sheriff and everything else? It's probably not going to happen."
Perry's pessimism is notable, since the effort has gained steam in conservative circles in recent months. More than 7,500 people have signed a petition Newberry Commissioner Tim Marden created last year to carve a new county out of western Alachua County. The petition calls for "smaller government, less taxes, and more freedom," a message that also features prominently on the Springs County website. Among other things, the site blames the City of Gainesville for poor county roads and for exercising "unwarranted influence in the affairs of the entire County."
A new county would take an act of the Florida State Legislature. Local media outlets have reported that state Rep. Chuck Clemons is on board with backing a referendum, but that was not the case when Mainstreet Daily News interviewed Clemons in June 2020.
Clemons, whose family heritage goes back to the 19th century in the High Springs area, said he had to research the process involved in creating a county in Florida because, “It’s been 95 years since one has been created, in 1925, when Gilchrist County separated from Alachua County.”
Back then, the state had a population of 600,000 and a majority lived in Northern Florida, so the current effort features a very different Florida, he said.
“You’ve got to have evidence,” Clemons emphasized as the No. 1 step in the secession process. He said that will involve feasibility studies paid for “by the people making their case.”
“From public agencies to land use agencies affected, all would need input,” he said. “If these people are serious, they need to raise some money, they need to go through the outline and have evidence of fiscal capacity."
Clemons pointed out that creating a county without raising taxes for the citizens would be a challenge.
“They’re going to leave with their share of the long-term bonding expense worth,” he said of the takeover of not only land and assets but the debt tied those assets.
“You can’t have 40 percent of the tax base leave and leave 60 percent of the population with 100 percent of the bonds,” he said referring to MSTU and ad valorem taxes.
According to Clemons, it will take at least several years to move toward secession. And a member of the Legislature would have to propose a general bill.
“A general bill means that as long as the local delegation is for it, it goes into a special category and the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida League of Cities would need input," he said. “Until these steps have been satisfactorily undertaken, it would be difficult to go to the next step.”
Up front, the process would require money to do studies about tax base and operations.
“Studies could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to have facts for legislators' support,” he said, adding that those funds would have to come from “private, non-deductible donations.”
Once the data from those studies is collected, the proposer of the bill would need to “state their case,” Clemons said.
“A general bill can pass with evidence of fiscal capacity,” he said. But there would also need to be analysis to support the conclusion “that you’re not going to hurt Alachua County by leaving it, and the people in the new county would have the services they would expect.”
Supporters would also need to pass a referendum before all Alachua County voters. And the timing of the process will also need to align with the legislative calendar.
To be heard in 2021, a bill would need to be submitted by Sept 1st, Clemons said. Since November 2022 is the next general election, Clemons projected at least a three-year process, estimating it will take a year to put a bill together.
After that, Clemons said the bill would require a “majority vote of the House of Representatives, a majority vote of the Senate, and have the governor say 'this is okay.'”
Clemons said that the current trend in the state is moving toward less government, not adding more.
He said he has served in four sessions of the state Legislature and during that time the body created one municipality while dissolving two.
Clemons also said those behind the Springs County effort need to be clear on what they really want.
“People are feeling neglected by current representation,” he said. “They need to focus on the outcome. Lower taxes? Make a smaller county?"
Clemons said advocates should collect some data to see how many people actually support the effort, because "it may just be a vocal few.”
Even if the effort doesn’t make it to the state Legislature, Clemons said, “Maybe the interest in this is a wake-up call that there are people who perceive they have no voice or representation.”
Mainstreet Daily News has requested a followup interview with Clemons several times over the past few months but received no response.
Meantime, a group known as Keep Alachua One is organizing against the new county effort. The group is circulating a petition to the Florida Legislature that has garnered more than 1,500 signatures in the last two months. It concedes that "rural voices need to be heard better" but says splitting the county is not the answer.
"We believe all affected citizens should have a say in whether the County is divided," the petition says.
The petition cites numerous objections, ranging from the financial costs and concerns about debt to provision of public services and the prospect of higher taxes.
"We believe it is reprehensible to reap the benefits of growth and revenue from growth of the areas the Springs County proponents mock and deride," the petition reads. "This line has economic, racial, and class implications that will negatively impact the eastern side of Alachua County, which under the proposed process, would not and should not be allowed."
While many officials have talked about the cost of creating a new county, no one has an actual estimate.
"All of that is unknown," Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said in a text message when asked for a cost estimate to start Springs County. "I'm not aware of any attempt to really answer those questions."
Marlowe didn't give an estimate, but said it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to answer the fundamental questions.
Newberry Commissioner Tim Marden, who is leading the effort, said the cost of the new county will depend on revenue generated, which depends on where the state would choose to draw the line.
"I/we have no control over what the State will say in the end," Marden said in an email. "All we are efforting is to get as close to what we can. We hope to have those numbers by summer time."