Alachua County to combine parks, roads in surtax  

County maintained roads
The proposed infrastructure surtax would continue funding Wild Spaces Public Places work throughout the county but also would pay for needed repairs to county-maintained roads. (Photo by Seth Johnson)

Alachua County wants to combine its Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) program with road and affordable housing financing in a new full-cent surtax that, if passed on Nov. 8, would begin January 2023 and last 10 years.  

Voters approved a half-cent surtax, or sales tax, in 2016 to fund the WSPP program that finances parks, plazas and conservation. The program will expire in 2024 if not extended through a ballot measure before then.  

WSPP passed with 60% of the vote, and the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) hopes to combine the success of the program with a half-cent raise that will finance only roads and affordable housing.  

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Over all 10 years, the surtax would generate an estimated $140 million for the WSPP program and another $140 million for the roads and affordable housing half.  

By Florida Statute, each county can only have one infrastructure surtax at a time, forcing a merger of the WSPP and roads/housing halves. But the BOCC has passed an ordinance that restricts each to only 50% of the funding. 

If the new half-cent is approved, the BOCC passed another measure that restricts roads to 70% of that half and affordable housing to the remaining 30% of that half. 

Alachua County also has a half-cent tax for school capital projects and the base state tax of 6%. If the new surtax passes, the total local sales tax will be 7.5% 

The BOCC has begun to prioritize roads after years of underfunding. Public Works Director Ramon Gavarrete said the county has a backlog of projects worth $408 million with an average road condition of 60 out of 100 for only county-owned roads.  

“Unfortunately, today, a lot of our roads, if not most, are in the bottom of the curve, and I don’t think that’s a surprise to most of us who drive our roadways,” Gavarrete said at a May meeting with Newberry officials.  

The BOCC said it wants to triple the road budget from this year, from $4.5 million to at least $15 million per year. If passed, the surtax would constitute a large share of the financing.  

Wild Spaces Public Places surtax pays for parks in Alachua County
The current Wild Spaces Public Places half cent surtax has paid for upgrades and development at many parks in Alachua County, including the Clarence R. Kelly Community Center, which reopened in June.

Local leaders launched a support campaign in September, but the surtax has been in the works for some time.   

The county placed a full-cent infrastructure surtax on the ballot in 2014. Called a transportation surtax, it was restricted to the “planning, development, financing, construction, reconstruction, operation, capital investment and maintenance of roads and bridges, bus systems, and bicycle and pedestrian projects.” 

But residents turned it down with only 40% support from 30,713 voters.  

Even reaching $15 million per year, Alachua County has bumpy road ahead. The average road condition would stay at 60 over the next 10 years before starting to improve, according to county data. 

Municipalities also get a percentage based on population. The following is the full estimate breakdown over 10 years:  

  • Alachua County—$280 million; 56.98% 
  • Gainesville—$174.1 million; 35.45% 
  • Alachua—$13.6 million; 2.76% 
  • Newberry—$9 million; 1.8% 
  • High Springs—$8.6 million; 1.7% 
  • Hawthorne—$1.9 million; 0.39% 
  • Archer—$1.6 million; 0.32% 
  • Waldo—$1.2 million; 0.25% 
  • Micanopy—866,000; 0.18% 
  • La Crosse—$511,000; 0.1% 
Alachua County Public Works Director Ramon Gavarrete.
Courtesy of Alachua County Alachua County Public Works Director Ramon Gavarrete.

The BOCC will also set $3 million of its funds for joint projects with the city of Gainesville and another $3 million for joint projects with the other municipalities. 

A county-financed study in 2022 said that 66% of voters would approve continuing just the WSPP program. The New Bridge Strategy study also asked if residents would support the full-cent surtax, and the numbers stayed the same with approximately two-thirds in support and one-third against. 

Alachua County has spent millions from the WSPP surtax to purchase conservation land, open preserves to the public and support active recreation. The funds have been used to purchase roughly 14,000 acres. Most recently, the county spent $1.5 million to buy just over 600 acres near Hawthorne.  

Gainesville has received the second largest portion of WSPP funds and has focused on active recreation over conservation. The funds have gone toward building brand new parks—Unity and Reserve—along with improvements to existing parks.  

The following are some of the largest projects in Gainesville: 

Reserve Park: $922,807 

  • Finished in January 2020, the new park includes a modern playground, a community garden, an obstacle course, picnic areas, and a memorial to Reserve Soldiers. 

Oakview Park improvements: $998,000 

  • Finished in September 2020, the project included renovations to the building, a playground, landscaping, removing invasive species and parking. 

Northside Park improvements: $2,145,524 

  • Finished in October 2020, improvements included the addition of 40 parking spaces, a new playground, pickleball courts, tennis courts, an outdoor patio and a walking path with outdoor exercise equipment. 

Unity Park and Flatwoods Trailhead: $1,081,038 

  • Finished in fall 2021, the park includes two new basketball courts, a community garden, playground equipment, sidewalk games, a pavilion, grill and a walking loop with fitness stations. 

Kelly Community Center and Park: $2,292,276 

  • Finished in May 2022, the project included the construction of a 3,800 sq. ft. community center and neighborhood park with playground, adult fitness equipment, a lighted basketball court and a fenced community garden.  

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Concerned Mom

Please vote no. In this article it states that previous funds were used to build Unity Park. I attempted to take my children to this park for my daughter’s birthday a few weeks ago after seeing it online. My daughter left in tears because that visit lasted all of two minutes. Upon exiting the vehicle my husband and I saw two USED condoms within 20 feet of our parking spot. As my children were running up to the play structure and I noticed this I yelled for them to stop. On the sidewalk to the play structures were about a dozen broken glass beer bottles. This park is not being maintained. This park cannot be used by the children which I assume was it’s intended purpose. It’s not safe for our youth. It’s being used for sex, drugs and alcohol by adults. Thank you Alachua County for wasting our hard earned money for yet ANOTHER one of your “projects” that you claim help the community.

Mike

Building their empires instead of maintaining county infrastructure and then displaying their failures as a needed emergency action. Politicians stink.

Janice Garry

I’m sorry for the experience a previous writer had a Unity Park. I hope she called the city Parks Dept and reported the debris. My experience at city parks built through WSPP has been different. The Oakview Park was refurbished recently and it has become a beacon for families in our neighborhood and surrounding areas. Other parks, took, have become a place of recreation and socializing. The WSPP, in my view, is one of the best run programs and use of money in our county.

We also need money for roads. The sales tax will be shared by the many visitors to Alachua County, thus sharing the cost with residents. It’s a sensible approach to improving roads and to helping with affordable housing. I voted yes to the WSPP/Infrastucture referendum.

TeachYourChildren

Vote NO to any new tax! There is already a gas tax in Alachua County and the current (and previous) AC BOCCs have not repaired a road, nor have they added any to relieve congestion on current roads that are all in very poor condition! Quit spending the current gas tax on pet projects and other things not related to infrastructure maintenance! Manage the current budget and prioritize projects that make a positive impact on the majority of Alachua County taxpayers!

Peter

One problem with our roads is the that right wing republicans who work and play in Gainesville and are willing to sit in their low MPG cars for 2 hours on their everyday commute are largely responsible for abusing our roads and NOT paying taxes on them. The parks and conservation land bought with this tax is a huge benefit to our community.