BY JENNIFER CABRERA/ JULY 3, 2019
Alachua County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson has sent an email to Gainesville City Commissioners, proposing a 20-year one-cent sales tax referendum, to begin in 2025. The draft referendum states:
“Shall Alachua County and its cities:
- build solar power systems on publicly owned facilities and,
- provide infrastructure for high speed internet; and,
- build, rehabilitate, and acquire affordable housing for low-income people and those with special needs; and,
- extend the Wild Spaces Public Places program to conserve land, protect water, and build parks,
to be funded with a one penny sales surtax to be collected beginning in 2025 for a term of twenty years.”
The document notes that the current half-cent surtax for Wild Spaces Public Places runs through 2024, and two surtaxes can’t run concurrently, so this one will not start until 2025. Instead of using the tax to raise money for a single program, as has been done with Wild Spaces Public Places and Half-Cent for Schools (which runs through 2030), Hutchinson is throwing the kitchen sink into this one.
Note that if area governments decide to proceed with the gigabit broadband initiative, that referendum will be on the same ballot as this one, which seems… problematic. Voters will be asked to approve a surtax that directs money toward a project that they haven’t voted for yet. Given that the sales tax will not take effect for 5 years, it seems that Hutchinson is taking advantage of a political situation in which both commissions are ideologically aligned to get this on the ballot now.
The document states that the proceeds from the solar portion will go “to Alachua County to provide for a solar farm and other installations capable of generating sufficient revenue to offset County government’s entire utility bill.” Local residents should be aware (and we will have an upcoming article on this) that GRU Manager Ed Bielarski has issued a solar energy white paper (“Here comes the sun”), in which he states that all local solar generation moves the fixed costs of the utility to “the backs of GRU’s traditional customers.” If the county’s $4 million utility bill is offset by its solar installation, rates of other customers will have to increase.
The anticipated revenue of the tax is $500 million. Although this will be sold as spreading the costs to people who visit the city, particularly for football games, YOU will in fact be paying this tax every time you purchase anything in Alachua County – for 20 years. On top of increased electricity rates, property taxes, and fire assessment fees, you will also be paying the second-highest sales tax rate in the state (Hillsborough County has a 2.5% surtax through 2026).
Hutchinson’s email says the referendum will also probably include “water quality projects such as wastewater connections for septic tank users.” He seems to invite city commissioners to add their own pet projects to the list: “For this to succeed, it has to be something every elected official gets behind–so I hope you’ll do whatever is necessary to make this yours.”