BOCC continues plan for new surtax initiative

The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners moved forward with its one cent infrastructure surtax initiative at a special meeting on Tuesday, approving wording and how the funds would be divided.

In order to take effect, voters will need to approve the initiative at the voting booth on Nov. 8, but the county and cities are preparing the groundwork.

Alachua County’s nine municipalities have until April 15 to turn in its lists of projects that will use the one cent surtax.

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The surtax will be divided into two parts—half for the county’s established Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) program and the other half for road repair, fire stations and affordable housing.

Currently, the county has a half-cent infrastructure surtax that is devoted entirely to WSPP. Voters approved the program in 2016 to last until Dec. 31, 2024.

If the full cent initiative fails in November, the current WSPP program will continue to its set expiration date and Commissioner Ken Cornell said he would push to renew the program at the half cent level in 2024.

The county decided to move for a one cent sales tax in order to also address other infrastructure needs in addition to WSPP.

Those needs will consist of road repair, fire station and other public facility improvements and buying land for affordable housing.

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners changed the ordinance language to ensure that the county could only use 50 percent for WSPP and 50 percent for the other infrastructure needs listed.

The language in the original ordinance would have allowed the WSPP portion of the surtax to exceed 50 percent while the other infrastructure projects were capped at 50 percent.

David Forziano, senior assistant county attorney, said county staff used the language to increase flexibility. The county may not be able to find a project that puts the percentage of funds used at exactly half, leaving leftover funds.

“I see that, but I also see how it could be misconstrued by the public that this is a bait and switch kind of a program,” Commissioner Mary Alford said. “That’s what I’m concerned about.”

Other commissioners agreed. The board also moved to expand the parameters of the current citizen oversight board that deals with WSPP to deal with the other projects as well.

“I think that the other priorities are so high, and I want the public to know that we understand those priorities are high…,” Alford said.

In a survey by New Bridge Strategy, 80 percent of respondents ranked “repairing roads and improving road safety” as extremely or very important.

The following projects finished off the top five:

  • Conserving lands for drinking water quality—79 percent
  • Conserving land for wildlife habitat—70 percent
  • Conserving working farms—65 percent
  • Implementing climate action plans like providing renewable energy, flood water management and planting trees—62 percent

The survey also provided nearly identical results as its 2015 study for what percentage of county residents would vote to approve the WSPP program as it stands.

The 2022 results showed that 66 percent would vote in favor of continuing the WSPP as it stands while 30 would vote against it.

When New Bridge Strategy asked if residents would support the full cent surtax, the numbers stayed the same with approximately two-thirds in support and one-third against.

If passed, the full cent surtax would begin Jan. 1, 2023 and run for 10 years, expiring Dec. 31, 2032.

At the end of the conversation, commissioners discussed whether the board should keep the WSPP money split with 90 percent going to acquiring lands and 10 percent used to improving existing facilities.

However, commissioners said that conversation, and any action, will continue later.

In January, Alachua County finalized its largest single land buy—$10.5 million for nearly 4,000 acres. According to the county, the 2016 WSPP approval has allowed the purchase of 12,033 acres.

The county also closed a 2,274-acre easement agreement on Jan. 4 for $5.6 million.

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