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City and county commissions discuss adding half-cent sales tax in 2022 referendum

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

In a joint meeting on December 6, the Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission discussed renewing the Wild Spaces Public Places sales tax early and adding another half-cent sales tax for infrastructure and housing. The initiative would be on the November 2022 ballot.

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe explained that it’s a little unusual to try to renew the sales tax two years early. Wild Spaces Public Places expires on December 31, 2024. If it is extended, both taxes would end on December 31, 2032. County Commissioner Anna Prizzia clarified that they wouldn’t be two separate taxes: it would be a full-cent tax, with half going to Wild Spaces Public Places and the other half going to infrastructure/housing priorities. If the full-cent tax doesn’t pass, the current half-cent tax would continue until 2024 and could be renewed on the November 2024 ballot. 

The new half-cent sales tax would give the County and the cities more flexibility in how they spend the money than Wild Spaces Public Places does. While the cities and the County would have to identify their projects up front, each entity would be able to focus the money on their specific priorities instead of spending it in a uniform way. County Commission Chair Marihelen Wheeler said the cities have been “really excited and grateful for that… We have to have roads to get to the parks… we need to make sure that the roads are accessible, too, and in good shape.” She also said that because it’s a sales tax, tourists will help “fund the infrastructure that they’re using.”

City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos favored including broadband, transit, economic development, Vision Zero, and bicycle infrastructure. City Commissioner Reina Saco agreed with all of that and also favored spending some of it on improvements to fire stations. Commissioner Harvey Ward also liked the idea of spending it on fire stations, arguing that they are “public places.” Ward also said that rebuilding University Avenue and 13th Street as “Complete Streets” will require a “lot of money that we don’t have a source for at this point.”

Multiple commissioners said that the community would have a lot of influence on the final priorities for the sales tax. Research on that is being handled by The Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco organization; former Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan is Vice President of The Trust for Public Land Action Fund and Southeast Conservation Finance Director for the Trust for Public Land. The contract between Alachua County and The Trust for Public Land will pay the organization $15,000 to produce a report on funding mechanisms for a list of programs. The programs in the contract are Wild Spaces Public Places; the new Alachua County Affordable Housing Trust Fund; County roads; a new County owned and operated broadband internet system that will provide affordable internet service to unserved and underserved areas of the County; and funding for the construction, reconstruction, or improvement of public facilities, including any related land acquisition, land improvement, design, engineering costs, and all other costs needed to bring the public facilities into service.

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County Commissioner Anna Prizzia advocated for using some of the money to fill the “empty bucket” of the County’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, approved by voters in 2020. The county commission recently voted to put $2 million of non-recurring money into that fund. She added, “We’ll see again what the voters say, but I think they told us loud and clear they wanted that Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and we have an obligation to figure out how to fund it.” She also said it’s important to provide places for youth to have productive things to do, “and so I hope that we will really actively involve the youth in the conversation about the infrastructure and what they would like to see going on in the community as we do that outreach.”

City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said her district, District 1, has infrastructure needs, particularly to reduce speeds on some roads after a 4-year-old boy was struck and killed by a car while crossing the road: “I had a request, believe it or not, yesterday at a meeting where people were asking for speed bumps.” Duncan-Walker was also interested in funding a new cultural center.

Poe asked the Interim City Manager to talk to individual commissioners to get their thoughts and then present recommendations to the city commission at a General Policy Committee meeting in February so they can move toward a final list of projects.

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