Springs County: Is there a feasible way to redraw county lines?

A grassroots effort to split Alachua County into two counties using 34th Street in Gainesville as the eastern edge is being spearheaded by a Newberry commissioner calling for less government. And while the idea of secession from a county is an extremely heavy lift that would take years to accomplish, it is gaining momentum.

It’s called “Springs County”.

Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden, who is also the state coordinator for the John Birch Society and said recently in a commission meeting that FEMA is unconstitutional, first launched the effort two years ago. He cites several actions taken by the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) that have contributed to focusing on the effort again.

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In a recent virtual meeting organized by Marden on Zoom, he listed Alachua County’s lawsuit against the City of Alachua five years ago that involved a proposed new Walmart and the protection of water resources, Alachua County bidding against private businesses for a paving project in Newberry and, most recently, the countywide emergency order issued by the BOCC that applies guidelines stricter than the governor’s to citizens and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Mainstreet Daily News asked elected officials at the State, County and local levels to give input to the effort and explain the process involved in the secession and development of a new county.

Florida House of Representatives Charles “Chuck” Clemons, Sr.

State Rep. Chuck 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 is under a very different Florida, he said.

“You’ve got to have evidence,” Clemons emphasized as the number one step in the secession process and 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 said. “What is the financial impact is going to be?

“It’s an arithmetic game, and being realistic about where the line is proposed,” he added.

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 about the new county take over 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.

“A few years at least,” he said, and explained that the effort would require a general bill to be proposed by himself or another State representative.

“A general bill means a 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.

“Until these steps have been satisfactorily undertaken, it would be difficult to go to the next step,” he said, and added that he does believe that “People deserve the type of government they would like to have.”

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, and added that those funds produced 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.”

Also, some sort of referendum for a general election, such as the question “would be do you support secession from Alachua County” would need to be voted on, he said.

“The evidence that you take to the legislature should be supported by and substantiated by a majority, plus by the people that it impacts,” he said.

The timing of the process will also need to align with the legislative calendar, Clemons said.

To be heard in 2021, a bill would need to be submitted by Sept 1st, he said. And November 2022 is next general election, so. according to Clemons, it would be three years out because 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.’ ”

“I’ve had a bill pass in the house and fail in the senate,” he said. “It’s not something that goes quick.”

Clemons said that the current strategy in the State is pointing to less government, not adding more.

He said he has served in four sessions of the State legislature and during that time they created one municipality, last year dissolved a city and most recently the City of Weeki Wachee was dissolved about a week ago with a general bill sign by the governor.

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? They need some training sessions to collect some data,” he said about how many people support the cause. “It may just be a vocal few.”

And 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.”

Alachua County Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson

According to Alachua County Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson, “It’s complicated,” he said about an effort secede.

Hutchinson said the new county would inherit a lot of debt.

“Start with building a judicial system, courthouse, jails, emergency operations, public works department,” he said.

“Then go into debt for that and we would give the debt proportional to what they would be taking and they promise (residents) that taxes are going to be lower. They’re not doing the accounting.

“They’re making the assumption that you can privatize things,” Hutchinson said. “The jail, charter schools. Often this is not a money saver.”

Hutchinson said “The specific beefs seem fairly trivial compared to seceding from the County. The things they think they could achieve without the influence of the liberals in Gainesville doesn’t seem to be worth it compared to the potential cost.”

Hutchinson said there is an irony in proposing the name “Springs County.”

“They always want to minimize environmental protection and growth management issues,” he said. “They have the audacity to name it Springs County when their policies will almost certainly guarantee that the springs will get worse.”

Hutchinson said he has followed the meetings and is aware that “A lot of people on the board are realtor and land spec types.”

Hutchinson also said that using 34th Street as the eastern border of a new county would encompass a voter base that most likely won’t be in favor of the proposed secession.

“In drawing the boundaries where they did, they way overstepped their base,” he said. “Maybe it’s a strategy that they will pull back to Parker Road as part of negotiation. The people in the area are going to have to vote on it.”

Hutchinson also researched the history of the 1925 creation of Gilchrist County. “Gilchrist left over an argument over whether cows should be fenced or free range,” he said.

His observation of the push back from the municipalities involved in the secession plan and suggestion on how to increase chances in the future for those municipalities to handle conflict with the County is to offer alternative plans when they oppose something.

“If and when they have concerns about they way things are going in Alachua County, they don’t really give alternatives,” he said. “It’s as if they don’t want any government and if they just govern back that would be okay and that doesn’t make sense.”

Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe

“I think it’s time I addressed Springs County,” Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe announced in an extensive comment on his official Facebook page on June 15th.

Since a majority of the people behind the development of a new Springs County are Newberry residents, dialogue and comments on social media are trending, so Marlowe put his thoughts out to his constituents.

“First, I think we need to understand a few facts. As of right now, there is no governing body in Alachua County that has taken a public stance on this idea. As of right now, there is not one elected official in Alachua County who has endorsed the expenditure of any public money on this idea. Lastly, as of right now, I don’t think it is possible to take a stance on this idea as there are too few details. It is, in point of fact, an idea, not a plan. It is also important to understand that this would be a decision that Tallahassee would have to make. It is not up to any local governing body.

I think the feasibility of Springs County can be reduced, quite simply, to its ability to take care of itself, without depriving whatever is left of Alachua County from being able to take care of itself. The State has a term for Counties that lack enough of a tax base to pay their own way. It is called being “fiscally constrained”. For example, Gilchrist County is a fiscally constrained county, which means they accept a redistribution of wealth check every year from wealthier counties like Alachua. Clearly, Tallahassee is not likely to approve of the creation of a new County that can’t take care of itself, especially if the creation of that new county ends up creating two counties that become fiscally constrained.

So, how do we know if Springs County, or the remainder of Alachua County, would be fiscally constrained? I think there are two ways to answer that question. One, some entity could hire a law firm, with a heavy expertise in tax law and accounting, to draw up possible county lines and run the numbers. I think it is also possible that enough people demand Springs County that Tallahassee takes on the study themselves. Alachua County has about 260k residents. So, and this is just a guess, if 30%-40% of them signed onto a petition, that may get Tallahassee’s attention.

How long and how expensive could this study be? I think here is where we get into the gritty details. If you split the County in two, you have Gainesville, Newberry, Archer, High Springs, City of Alachua, School Board of Alachua, and the Alachua County Commission to work with. With GRU, you may have another governing body to work with there as well. It doesn’t take long to realize that this would take some period of years, not months, to work out. It is certainly achievable, but I couldn’t even begin to guess at the amount of money it would take to get the answers that you would need in order to make an informed decision, and as new roads, schools, parks, houses, etc are built, the equation would keep changing. Or, all that new construction would cease as we worked out the answers, which isn’t a very appealing idea.

This is why it is important to understand that no governing body has voted to expend tax dollars to answer these questions: questions that would have to be answered before it is remotely possible to take a stance. None of this means that Springs County is a “bad” or “impossible” idea. It just means that it is a complicated idea. In fact, my point is that there isn’t enough information to say what kind of idea this is.

For me, the point of Springs County isn’t the actual county. For me, the point is the frustration that birthed the idea. We have a significant amount of people discussing Springs County in a positive way, and we have leadership that refuses to acknowledge the frustration that those people are feeling. When a group of people feel ignored and left out of the system, their recourse to fix that imbalance will grow ever more radical. Springs County is the manifestation of years of built up frustration. Springs County is a creative, ingenious idea that should never have been necessary to conceive.”

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