HomeElectionsDistrict voter breakdown shows that independent voters and Republicans could swing elections in western districts if single-member district referendum passes
District voter breakdown shows that independent voters and Republicans could swing elections in western districts if single-member district referendum passes
November 2, 2022
BY AMBER THIBODAUX
ALACHUA COUNTY, Fla. – On November 8, Alachua County residents will have an opportunity to vote on several local issues in addition to the governor, senate, and congressional races. Two significant ballot items are the Single-Member District Charter Amendment and the vote on whether to implement a one percent sales surtax for the next 10 years, starting January of 2023.
Shall the five members of the Board of County Commissioners of Alachua County, Florida, be elected to office from single-member districts by electors residing in each of those districts only?
Currently, County Commissioners are elected “at-large,” which means every voter can vote for each of the five county commission seats, regardless of where the voter lives. In a single-member district election, voters would only vote for the commissioner running in the district in which they reside. Supporters argue that this would allow for more diverse representation of the entire county – meaning that each district commissioner would focus on the specific needs and concerns of those in the district they represent.
It’s worth noting that the City of Gainesville currently has a mix of four single-member districts and two at-large seats, in addition to the mayor, who is elected at-large; however, both the County Commissioners and the commissioners of the City of Gainesville oppose single-member districts for the County Commission. Rodney Long, who is running for State Senate, told the House State Committee back in February that he initiated the single-member district form of government for the City of Gainesville because it was “broken because black voters voted overwhelmingly for candidates of their choice in majority-black districts, but their votes were diluted when counted at-large.” He then said that changing the County Commission to single-member districts, conversely, would “impact minority access. You couldn’t draw a majority or minority access district because African-Americans live all across Alachua County. This would lead to retrogression.”
Although a majority of Alachua County voters are Democrats, when registered voters are broken down by district, the data shows that certain areas of the county have higher concentrations of Republican voters than others. Below is a District Demographic Analysis of the county as a whole, obtained via a public records request from the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections, and directly beneath that is a breakdown of each district by the top three party affiliations: Democrat, Republican, and NPA (No Party Affiliation, or Independent). These numbers indicate that if single-member districts were implemented, NPA voters could swing Districts 1-3 (and District 2 could be competitive without NPAs, depending on turnout) and shift power from Democrat to Republican, depending on how they vote.
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If the charter amendment passes, residents would still be able to speak to any commissioner of any district and voice their concerns. District 4 County Commissioner Ken Cornell has argued the opposite, claiming on more than one occasion that single-member districts would change from “speak to five of us … to being able to speak to only one. It would reduce [their] representation.” However, there is no prohibition at any level of government against speaking to a representative of another district, and representatives are free to speak with any resident.
Commissioners from smaller municipalities favor the initiative
Cornell argued at the same committee hearing in February that of the county’s eight municipalities, “not one of them have expressed support for this bill” but that the City of Gainesville and Alachua County Commissioners unanimously opposed it.
However, most of the smaller municipalities have not taken formal votes on the initiative, and commissioners from four separate municipalities within Alachua County, as well as one County Commissioner, have spoken on the record in support of the ballot measure. High Springs Commissioner Linda Jones has been a proponent of single-member districts for nearly two years, going back to an Alachua County Charter Review Committee meeting in 2020 where she and other City Commissioners publicly spoke in favor of placing a similar charter amendment on the ballot. “In my opinion, the outlying cities do not have a voice with the [Board of County Commissioners],” Jones told Alachua Chronicle. “I attended the meeting held at Santa Fe almost a year ago and spoke in favor of the referendum and have been outspoken whenever I’ve had the opportunity.”
Newberry Commissioner Tim Marden echoed Jones in his support for single-member districts. “The county worked very hard to keep this off the ballot, going so far as to travel with a large contingency to Tallahassee during the committee stops. The County shouldn’t work so hard to keep people from voting. The state had to pass an amendment to stop the County from using [its] own tax dollars to fight this being put on the ballot,” Marden said.
Micanopy Commissioner Mike Roberts told us, “I support single-member districts 100 percent. Unfortunately, the majority of our citizens in the unincorporated area of Alachua County are at the mercy of UF and SFCC students who move to Alachua County and register to vote without realizing the ramifications of their voting choice.” Roberts says that voting yes on single-member districts is the only way residents will “ever gain control of our elected Alachua County Commissioners.”
City of Alachua Commissioner Dayna Miller pointed out that all communities within the county are unique, with different needs. “Alachua County’s expansive geography and a high population center in the city of Gainesville creates a challenge to have focused representation that stretches to all corners of our county. Voters of Alachua County now get to decide if a single-member district approach can better ensure representation of all our unique communities we love,” Miller said.
District 1 County Commissioner Raemi Eagle-Glenn, who was appointed by Governor DeSantis following former Commissioner Mary Alford’s resignation, says that “single-member districts will allow voters of each district to consolidate their power by picking a representative who understand[s] the particular needs of their district and will make currently underrepresented areas (like Hawthorne) more competitive in obtaining what their residents want.”
One Percent Sales Tax
The one percent sales tax initiative reads as follows:
Wild Spaces Public Places, Road Repair, Fire Stations, and Affordable Housing One Percent Sales Tax
Shall Alachua County: Acquire and improve lands for conservation, wildlife habitat, water quality, and recreation; operate and maintain parks and recreation facilities; repair roads and improve road safety; construct and renovate fire stations and other public facilities; acquire lands for affordable housing; fund economic development projects pursuant to Florida Statute 212.055(2)(d)(3); provide citizen oversight and independent audit; by levying a one percent sales surtax for ten years starting January 1, 2023?
It is important to note that Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) is currently funded through 2024 and will almost certainly be placed on the ballot for renewal at that time if the 2022 referendum fails.
This initiative claims in part that more tax money is needed to repair roads and improve road safety, yet Alachua County residents are paying nearly the highest median property tax in the state and the highest per capita public service tax. Additionally, Alachua County collects the second-highest per-capita “total county and municipal government revenue” and has the third-highest per capita “total municipal expenditures.” Despite ranking at the top of almost every tax and spend category in the state, Alachua County still maintains a road-repair backlog of $408 million and 1,200 lane miles.
County Commissioner Eagle-Glenn is against the one percent surtax, saying instead, “We need to wean the County off our buck. This will force them to reprioritize how we spend taxpayer dollars.” She told us there is a needed culture change within the County Commission and believes that funds shifted from social service programs would adequately fund roads over time. “The establishment says they need the surtax for roads. We have a federal American Rescue Plan grant. That money is sent towards social service programs hands-down, instead of the roads and public safety. They use it for IDs for illegals, medical services to the poor, and broadband expansion,” Eagle-Glenn said.
Eagle-Glenn gave an example using the new Rental Ordinance passed by the County Commission back in September. “They want to hire new code enforcement ‘babysitters’ to go door-to-door to ‘educate’ tenants on their ‘poor rental conditions.’ The County says the annual landlord fees will pay for the code officers. That’s always the plan at first, right? But year after year, they will find that more ad valorem [property taxes] will go to the salary increases and new hires for this rental ordinance sub-department,” she said.
High Springs Commissioner Jones agrees that the County has continually neglected roads in the outlying cities around Gainesville. “The [residents] of Alachua County were lied to a number of years ago about using sales tax money for roads. This is the third time they’ve tried since, and now they are using WSPP as a come-on. WSPP is funded through 2024, and many feel confident it will be continued,” Jones said. Jones is referring to the previous two attempts by the Alachua County Commission that asked the voters to approve a sales surtax for road repair.
Newberry Commissioner Marden said, “The County has tried to pass a roads-only tax twice now. Both failed, I believe because the residents feel they are giving enough tax money on their property taxes for roads but the County squanders it on other things.” Marden believes that the commission hopes by grouping it with the WSPP tax, that will “drag it across the finish line.”
Micanopy Commissioner Roberts told us, “The Alachua County Commission over the last 30 years has ignored our roads and infrastructure.”
“If single-member districts were in place in the past, then representatives of [those] districts would have been forced to listen to the people that elected them, and our roads would not be in the shape that they are today,” Roberts said.
Pavement study shows roads are in poor condition
In 2021, Alachua County retained an independent contractor, The Kercher Group, to perform a pavement management study and analysis on all County-maintained asphalt streets. According to its finalized Pavement Management Report, the entire network of roads and highways in Alachua County are in “poor condition” (the lowest possible rating) and are “projected to continue to deteriorate substantially in the coming years at the current low funding levels and using the current project delivery approach of waiting until the pavements fail prior to reacting.” The graph below shows the projected condition of roads in Alachua County in the year 2040, with Sc#1 indicating the county’s current practice:
If the County maintains its current levels of funding, 92 percent of the roads are projected to fall into the “poor condition” category by 2040. The last line in the graph is the recommended strategy.
Below is a breakdown of the Alachua County Adopted Budget for Fiscal Year 22 – the top line is the projected total collected in property taxes (listed here as Ad Valorem):
These figures indicate that the largest source of County revenue comes from property taxes, at 27.4% – equal to $155.9 million for FY 2021-22. Funding for road maintenance is generally taken mainly from property taxes.
Marden pointed out that this allotment should adequately cover the cost of road repair and reminds us that one of the main functions of government is roads. “Road repair should be paid for by property tax dollars. The County Roads Director told our Newberry City Commission he needs $40 million per year to keep the roads at par! If the tax passes and the County keeps its promise, the total annual roads budget may increase to $18 million. Do the math and you’ll see we are STILL moving backwards,” Marden said.
If monies collected via property taxes were prioritized for road repair, then the County Roads Director’s estimate of $40 million falls well within the range of the overall property tax revenue of $155.9 million. However, given that only $4 million of that FY22 budget was allocated for roads, that would mean that $36 million in spending would have to be cut in other areas. ($8 million is budgeted for roads in the FY23 budget.)
Districts in western part of the county have the highest property tax burden
Three of the four commissioners who spoke to us in favor of single-member districts represent District 2, in the western portion of Alachua County – which also has the highest property tax burden. According to figures provided by the Alachua County Tax Collector’s office, the breakdown of property taxes paid by district is as follows:
District 1 – $23,858,648.75
District 2 – $30,659,287.80
District 3 – $24,933,738.31
District 4 – $20,177,427.23
District 5 – $24,080,525.80
Here’s a district map with lines drawn for reference:
Although District 2 has the highest property tax burden in the county, commissioners from that district told us they feel their constituents’ tax dollars aren’t being used wisely, and they’re seeing no direct benefit.
Distribution of the surtax revenue
If the one percent surtax passes, the County itself would get the bulk of the revenue, 56.98 percent, followed by the City of Gainesville, with 35.45 percent. Counties are required by statute to share revenues of a local infrastructure surtax with municipalities. A breakdown of the annual surtax distribution, from Alachua County’s Conservation Finance Feasibility Study in December 2021, is shown below. It is worth noting that the two entities set to receive the most funding have both publicly opposed the Single-Member District Amendment in an official capacity and have spoken in favor of the one percent sales tax.
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