Local ballot measures: One good – one bad

by Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, former Alachua County Commissioner

At the bottom of the Nov. 8 ballot are two local referenda that require some understanding before deciding how to vote. It is important to know why they were proposed and what they will do. The first goes by the catchy title: “Wild Spaces/Public Places, road repair, fire stations, and affordable housing one percent sales surtax.”

If passed, our sales tax (currently at 7%) would go to 7.5% for ten years starting in 2023. It would do this by simultaneously repealing an existing half-penny sales tax and replacing it with a full penny. The current tax provides funding for Wild Spaces/Public Places (WSPP) projects for county and city governments. These funds are used to purchase conservation lands that protect water, provide recreation (“Wild Spaces”), and build and improve parks, trails, and recreation centers (“Public Spaces”). Voters have twice approved WSPP ballot measures.

The grand bargain in this referendum is two-fold:

To use a half-cent to extend the Wild Spaces/Public Places program for ten years and,

Use the second half-cent for road projects, affordable housing, and public building projects such as building or renovating fire stations. The county’s focus will be on roads and housing. Each city can decide its own priorities. 

It is a difficult time to ask people to tax themselves, and conventional wisdom assumes that sales taxes are regressive. But in Florida, sales tax is not collected on expenditures that, in other states, do disproportionately impact lower-income people. In Florida, the following items are sales tax exempt:

– Groceries

– Medicine and medical supplies

– Residential rent

– Utility bills

– Auto fuel

– Diapers and hygiene products

– Seeds and fertilizer

– Personal and professional services. 

In addition, merchandise such as clothing, emergency supplies, and some outdoor recreational gear has sales tax holidays during various weeks each year. 

As a regional center for employment and shopping, approximately one-third of sales tax proceeds in Alachua County come from visitors or residents of adjacent counties that benefit from our infrastructure.

When passed, a Citizen’s Oversight Committee will meet regularly to assure the funds are spent according to law and that an annual independent review is conducted. Previous iterations of this infrastructure surtax have demonstrated that our local governments choose projects that we, the people, need and value. 

These transformational projects will be equitably distributed throughout the county, and the funding level is needed and appropriate.   

I hope you will join me in voting “Yes.”

A second referendum on the ballot is called: “Alachua County Commission Single Member Districts.” If passed, it will change how Alachua County Commissioners are elected. It was placed on the ballot, over the unanimous objections of the Alachua County and City of Gainesville commissions, through a local bill run in Tallahassee by Rep. Chuck Clemons. The local bill was supported by the three Republicans in our local delegation and opposed by the one Democrat. 

Currently, most county commissioners in Florida (including Alachua County) are elected “At-Large” meaning everybody, regardless of where they live in the county, can vote in all five commission elections. Our county commissioners are required to reside in five separate districts of equal population, but everybody gets to vote for or against all of them. The proposed change would make it so only the people who live in the same district as the commission candidates can vote in that race. 

Proponents claim this will simplify campaigning and increase accountability. Some rural and conservative officials are advocating for this because they feel the Alachua County Commission is too progressive. With this change, there might be more conservatives elected to the commission.

While the rhetoric sounds good to some, the reality of single-member districts tells a different story. Those in the political minority inevitably introduce them, and in Alachua County, it is Republicans who are pushing it. Unfortunately, at the national and state level, the GOP has become corrupted by corporate and religious interests, the dark money of oligarchs, and, frankly, big liars. In Florida, they relentlessly undermine local governments that attempt to pursue progressive and science-based agendas. 

In other counties with single-member districts, ward politics and protracted fights over gerrymandering result, and formerly collegial bodies become less effective. In more conservative communities, single-member districts have allowed minorities to achieve some representation. However, in Alachua County, one or two African Americans have served on the five-member Board of County Commissioners at all times during the last fifty years under the existing At-Large system. 

Single-member districts are being foisted on Alachua County unasked for and are unwelcome; citizens should vote “No” on this divisive ballot measure to send a resounding message: “Hands Off Alachua County!”

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