Legislative delegation hears funding requests, Clemons proposes consolidated city/county government
September 27, 2021
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
The Alachua County Legislative Delegation met at Santa Fe College on Monday, September 27, to consider local bills and give local residents and officials an opportunity to request legislation or state funding and express opinions on issues to be considered by the State Legislature during the 2022 Regular Session. The meeting featured State Senator Keith Perry and Representatives Chuck Brannan, Chuck Clemons, and Yvonne Hinson.
All but two of the requests to the delegation were for funding; only two of the requests had to do with legislation, with one person asking for a bill that would give families more avenues to sue doctors who made mistakes and one person asking for a bill to provide more access to dental care.
Both the University of Florida (Dr. Charlie Lane) and the City of Gainesville (Mayor Lauren Poe) requested money to make University Avenue and 13th Street safer for pedestrians and drivers. Senator Perry asked Lane if the plans included new ways to get across Gainesville in the north-south and east-west directions to divert traffic from University Avenue and 13th Street. Lane’s response was, “We’re working very closely with the City and County, we’re working with the DOT, so I’d like to think, Senator Perry, that we’re doing everything we can to make it as safe as possible.”
Perry responded, “We can narrow roads and we can lower speed limits,” but they needed to also look at ways to get people across town.
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Poe said the City has been working “hand-in-glove with the University and the State Department of Transportation District 2; everybody is positive about what we can do there and how we can eliminate the serious injuries and fatalities, but it’s gonna come with a price tag… appreciate your support.”
Poe also asked for money for the Community Paramedicine Program and a Central Receiving Facility for people with mental health issues. He thanked the delegation for “getting [the Police Interrupters program] across the finish line,” but added that the program “didn’t quite clear the governor’s desk, but there was unbelievable support in both the House and the Senate, so we’re asking for support for that Police Interrupters program again—highly effective, highly successful. As you know, especially gun violence is up everywhere, and we need to take new approaches to address that…hopefully we can convince the governor of its value.”
Perry asked whether the Interrupters program was vetoed, and Poe said, “Yeah.” Perry also asked Poe about a traffic master plan, saying that maybe the two of them could meet to go over finding new ways to get through Gainesville without going past campus. Poe responded, “Yes, sir, and that is part of the preliminary planning we’ve done; we’re working to get into Phase 2 right now with the design. But yeah, we’re looking at the overall scope of how people get around our city. There are obviously going to be trade-offs, and we’re trying to prioritize health and safety, but we know that there are ways to get people around our city and through our city safely and effectively at the same time. I think that we have ultimately come up with a plan that will achieve all those goals.”
Alachua County Commission Chair Ken Cornell said that as a result of money received from the federal government, the County has no requests this year except to support the requests from the smaller cities. Cornell pointed out that most of the east-west roads in the county are state roads, and the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization has requested additional capacity on NW 23rd Avenue, which runs in front of Santa Fe College.
Mayor Jordan Marlowe of the City of Newberry asked for money for their two-way-pair road system and a meat packing project, which they are still refining. He also asked for approval of a Jobs Growth Grant and $5 million to help meet new State regulations for their wastewater treatment plant; he said the project as a whole would cost $25 million.
Mayor Gib Coerper of the City of Alachua thanked the University for “coming to the table with Concept Construction and wanting to develop the 285 acres along the new boulevard… We’re moving forward with that, and it’s going to be something very special, not only for the City of Alachua but way beyond that, as far as jobs.” Coerper talked about home rule and the increasing numbers of preemption bills being passed by the legislature. “I hope you fight for us… It makes a huge difference when someone’s trying to take away your home rule.”
Kim Worley, the City Manager of Waldo, asked for approval of their applications for Round 2 of the Rebuild Florida General Infrastructure Program, one for sewer manhole rehab and replacements, and one for potable water system upgrades. They also want funds for the FDOT Complete Streets program to make their streets safer for pedestrians. She also said they would like to see the bike path extended from the Gainesville Airport to other bike paths in the area.
Perry then said that his staff had checked on the Interrupters program, and it was funded at $230,000. City of Gainesville Assistant Manager Fred Murry said, “I did correct the mayor. We did get funded for the Interrupter program last year. We’re asking for additional dollars for that program for the upcoming year.” Perry said if it had been vetoed, he’d have to return the thank-you letter from GPD Chief Jones.
Single-member districts for Alachua County
After the requests were complete, the legislators discussed local bills and made general comments. Perry said there are two potential local bills that aren’t ready but could be considered. One is single-member districts for Alachua County, in which people voting for a commissioner from a district would have to live in that district.
Clemons said there are 2 ways to get a proposal on the ballot: one is to collect signatures from 20% of the registered voters and present them to the legislature; the second way is for the legislative delegation to hold a public hearing with public notice given two weeks in advance. They would receive input from the public and place the proposal on the ballot by a vote of the delegation. The proposal would then require a simple majority of the Alachua County electorate to pass, possibly in November 2022. Clemons said that if the single-member district bill passed, the county commission would be expanded from five members to seven, with five members elected from their districts and two at-large commissioners.
Hinson said that could lead to a “divisive commission, similar to what we’ve got going on right now with the City, where people have their own interests for their own district and not working together. I don’t see that happening on the county commission right now because they’re elected from the general population, making them more accountable to everyone. I just don’t think you ought to mess with that.”
Perry said the idea could be fully discussed if a hearing were held.
Consolidating the City and County
Clemons said that in the 1960s, the City of Jacksonville and Duval County consolidated their governments. “For the last year or two, there’s been somewhat of a conflict inside the City of Gainesville, with some questionable decisions… City Manager Lee Feldman recently resigned; we’ve had a city commissioner, Gail Johnson, officially resign, the city commission tried to fire recently GRU’s General Manager, Ed Bielarski, but later withdrew the motion when he had enough support from the community… and then the City Clerk of Gainesville resigned and then rescinded her resignation… To quote the president of the IAFF 2157, the City of Gainesville currently is involved in a ‘dumpster fire.’…
“So what may happen there is, if the momentum builds for some sort of consolidation talk, then we would have another public hearing where all sides of that issue could be heard. If the delegation felt that it was necessary and we passed a local bill, then it would go on the ballot in November 2022. The affected parties would get to vote on that, to whether or not they would like to see a combined city and county government. Think about that for just one moment. The city commission operates Gainesville Regional Utilities. There’s certainly somewhere between a $25 million and $32 million transfer from the Gainesville Regional Utilities to help prop up the City of Gainesville’s operational budget. That would no longer be necessary. Perhaps the Gainesville Regional Utilities would be able to pay down their debt faster, thus receiving a higher bond credit rating, which in turn could perhaps lower people’s electricity bills, especially the people who can afford those bills the least.
“All these things are in the idea stage here. Should they move forward, I would look forward to entertaining a healthy debate on both sides of that particular issue from not only our elected officials in the City and the County but for concerned citizens, as well. You know, insanity is doing the same thing over and over… To make progress, we need to bust through that logjam and find some ways to solve and resolve the local conflicts and the local challenges that our governments are facing.”
Clemons also said he is in favor of home rule, “but Florida has 67 counties, and they have about 410 municipalities. Each of those governmental subdivisions of state government are elected by the people that they serve… and basically there’s not a challenge with home rule until some jurisdictions start getting out there with passing their legislation.” He gave some examples, including a $10,000 fine for vacation rental violations in Miami Beach. “When things get out of whack, then other people say, ‘This is not just; somebody needs to do something about this. Let’s go to the legislature and see what we can do about leveling that playing field across the state.’” He said that different laws on plastic grocery bags, for example, affect state-wide commerce. He mentioned Key West’s decision that they would no longer accept certain ships at their international port: “Are you willing to, City of Key West, return those millions of dollars from the state and the federal… to enhance the viability of that particular port city? No, you’re not.
“So there are certain times when the State of Florida has to look at these very difficult situations and weigh in, much to the dismay of some of the local elected officials. There’s a delicate balancing act, but in the end, all of those 67 counties, those 410 municipalities, are divisions of state government. And I know the folks on this dais hope and pray that they can transact their business and lead their communities in reasonable and prudent methods and ways, but every so often, that doesn’t occur, and it forces the State to come in.”
Brannan added that they all say they’re for home rule when they run for office, “but it is eye-opening to serve in the legislature and see what happens in a lot of [counties and cities] and sometimes these things need to be reined in. I lose sleep sometimes… because they are tough decisions, but sometimes the State does have to step in and be the arbitrator of those things.”
The delegation then elected their leadership for the next year. Brannan nominated Perry as chair, and Hinson quickly seconded the nomination. Clemons nominated Hinson as vice-chair, and both were selected to those posts.
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