Clemons suggests combining Gainesville with county

Florida state representatives are all about home rule, except when things are getting out of hand, Rep. Chuck Clemons said at the Alachua County Legislative Delegation hearing on Monday.

Clemons (District 21), along with state Sen. Keith Perry (District 8), state Rep. Chuck Brannan (District 10) and Rep. Yvonne Hinson (District 20) met with local elected officials, government and state school leaders and the general public to hear about concerns and ideas for future policy making decisions.

Elected officials from Alachua County and local municipalities addressed the delegates to relay any projects and priorities that the state representatives could help further. No one spoke on behalf of Archer or Hawthorne.

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From a wastewater treatment plant to a meat processing plant, the delegates listened to presentations and to concerns from officials and the public.

Dr. Paul Broadie, president of Santa Fe College, spoke first at the event which was held at the SF College Fine Arts Hall auditorium.

Broadie congratulated the University of Florida for receiving a top-five ranking among the nation’s public universities.

Broadie asked for further program funding and support for more Career Technical Education (CTE) investment.

University of Florida Senior Vice President Charlie Lane said he hoped the pandemic would be over by now and that UF is doing all it can do to return to campus life and welcome back athletics. He thanked health care professionals for their hard work and dedication through challenging times.

He spoke of making University Avenue safer and a commitment from UF to job creation. He asked for funding for architecture and deferred maintenance needs across the campus.

“We’re committed to partnering with you and others to see that Gainesville and Alachua County become a global hub for innovation and research,” Lane said.

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe asked for support for pedestrian and vehicular safety on University Avenue and said it comes with a high price tag.

Poe emphasized the importance of establishing a central receiving facility and said the city was, “looking for a little bit of help getting it up and running.”

Perry asked to go over the Gainesville master plan to try to find ways to move traffic off of University Avenue. Poe said the city is looking at the overall scope of how people navigate Gainesville.

“We’ve been blessed with aid from the federal government,” Alachua County Board of County Commissioners Chair Ken Cornell told the legislators. That included $52 million from American Rescue Plan funding and $46 million from the CARES Act. The county received $17 million for emergency rental assistance.

As a result of that, Cornell said that for the fifth straight year Alachua County is lowering the millage rate.

“Our request this year is we have no requests except that you please support the requests that you will hear from our smaller cities,” he said, along with the requests from the colleges.

Cornell also relayed that the county is trying to expand 23 Avenue.

“If we could get additional capacity on that road that comes right in front of Santa Fe, that would help,” he said.

Representatives from the state attorney office said they are losing attorneys after they train and lobbied for the legislators to support raising salaries.

Rep. Yvonne Hinson and State Sen. Keith Perry

In closing remarks it was Perry and Clemons who shared two possible items that might come before voters if they gain enough momentum.

Perry talked about single member districts and the possibility of adding two more commissioners to the BOCC.

Currently the entire county votes for county commissioners. A change to allow only citizens in a district to vote for the candidate representing that district was suggested. If the delegation approved the idea, there would be committee hearings, etc., Perry said.

As Clemons described it, if 20 percent of the electorate could get that initiative on the November 2022 ballot or the legislative delegation could place it on the ballot after holding a public hearing with two week notice for public input.

The idea would have five BOCC members elected from individual districts and the two more would be elected countywide by the general public. The district members would serve four-year terms and at large would serve two-year terms.

Hinson said she did not think that was a good idea.

“I just see having a divisive commission where people have their own interests for their own district,” she said. “I don’t see that happening for the county now. I don’t think we ought to mess that up.”

Clemons then moved on with his comment and quoted a local union representative who said that the City of Gainesville is a “dumpster fire,” because of all of the recent employee turnover.

He referred to Duval County combining with the City of Jacksonville and said that with Gainesville, there is, “Somewhat of a conflict and some questionable decisions being made.”

Clemons listed that City Manager Lee Feldman resigned, Commissioner Gail Johnson resigned, the City tried to fire the GRU general manager, the city clerk resigned then rescinded the resignation.

“If there is momentum for a consolidation,” Clemons said, and if the delegation passed a local bill, it would go on the ballot.

Clemons pointed to the Gainesville Commission operating GRU and taking $25 to 32 million in funds transfers to prop up the City of Gainesville’s operational budget.

“Perhaps GRU would be able to pay down debt faster, thus receiving a higher bond credit rating which would in turn perhaps lower people’s electricity bills,” Clemons said about freeing GRU from funding the city.

Clemons said the concept is, “in the idea stage,” and that he, “would look forward to entertaining a healthy debate from elective officials and citizens.”

“It’s insanity doing the same thing over and over,” he said.

“Many officials talk about home rule,” he continued, noting that there are 67 counties and 410 municipalities in Florida.

“Each governmental subdivision is elected by citizens,” Clemons said. “There’s not a challenge in home rule until some jurisdictions start getting out there with passing their legislation. When things get out of whack, people turn to their legislature to level the playing field across the state.”

Clemons described times when the state legislation had to step in to fix situations.

“Last year, the legislature had to weigh in on Key West voting to not accept certain size ships at the local port,” he said.

In the closing moments of the two-hour long meeting, the delegation voted for Perry to be named chair and Hinson to be named vice chair. The legislative session will convene on Jan. 11, 2022.

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