Alachua infrastructure sales tax introduced for rural internet and road safety
Officials plan to ask the public if they would pay higher sales taxes for projects such as high-speed internet service in rural areas of the county and improving pedestrian safety roads around the University of Florida, where students recently died.
The proposed “infrastructure surcharge” is only in the initial stages of discussion, and officials aren’t even sure what tax increase would be offered to voters, or who would have to approve it by referendum. But officials in the city of Gainesville and Alachua County are talking about raising the sales tax as they both struggle to fund major projects they say are badly needed as soon as possible.
Alachua County officials have asked the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit organization, to conduct a feasibility study of an infrastructure surcharge to pay for the projects.
“It is in its early stages,” said county spokesperson Mark Sexton. “We don’t know how much (of a tax increase).” We don’t know how long that would be charged. “
Possible projects funded with the tax increase include: pedestrian safety projects around the UF, high-speed internet service throughout the county, affordable housing, and the expansion of the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Program. public places, Sexton said.
City officials said the potential 7% sales tax hike could provide much-needed funding for the redevelopment of University Avenue and 13th Street near UF to make it safer for residents. pedestrians and cyclists.
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Improving pedestrian safety near the University of Florida
In January, UF student Sophia Lambert died and four others were injured when a car on West University Avenue across from campus crashed into them.
In December, UF student Maggie Paxton was hit and killed in a hit and run a few blocks from where Lambert died.
Following the deaths, the city has discussed with the Florida Department of Transportation the possibility of taking control of West University Avenue and 13th Street through the campus in order to accelerate improvements in pedestrian and traffic safety. cyclists.
But city officials admit they do not have the necessary funds.
The sales tax increase could provide them, Mayor Lauren Poe said earlier this week.
The funding gap was identified at a special committee meeting on Wednesday where its “Vision Zero” pedestrian safety initiative was discussed.
Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic accidents and serious injuries, “while increasing safe, healthy and fair mobility for all,” its website states.
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As of 2018, as part of this effort, city staff are developing a comprehensive plan for the cycling and walking improvements that could be made by the campus.
Staff identified more than $ 2.3 million in unfunded pedestrian safety projects, including new traffic lights to improve crosswalks, new lighting, sidewalk and sidewalk improvements.
Poe said it was good to have a plan, but funds were needed to implement it.
“We’re spending more and more money on it every year, but there’s a huge gap between what we can do now and what we have to do at the end of the day,” he said.
Commissioner Harvey Ward said he supports the sales tax increase to generate additional funds.
“We know what needs to be done to make our roads safer, and generally better for cars and trucks, pedestrians and cyclists and everyone,” he said. “We just can’t afford to do it all at the same time.”
He said the city knew what needed to be done to improve pedestrian safety.
“We try to climb that mountain (of funding) every budget year.”
Land conservation, other projects can also be included
Alachua County has asked the Trust for Public Land to submit a proposal to ask residents about a sales tax increase and what projects they could support. The feasibility study could also include designated funding to expand the Wilderness and Public Places program, which is funded by a half-cent sales tax that is expected to expire in 2024, Sexton said.
“There were a number of things discussed, such as the redevelopment of the Wilderness and Public Spaces section, which would support land conservation and parks and public spaces,” Sexton said. “There was talk of seeing the roads be part of it. There has been some discussion that affordable housing is part of it, and broadband. “
Sexton said the conservation program could be included with other projects in the infrastructure surcharge, but it is not yet clear whether this question would be asked as a separate question to voters from other projects.
“Land conservation is covered by the infrastructure sales tax,” he said. “I haven’t heard any conversation about two separate taxes. But it is still too early to say that anything is still set in stone. “
The Trust for Public Land feasibility study is essential before a referendum is held, Sexton said.
“We wouldn’t go into that stuff without having a clear understanding, doing some polls and seeing where the community is with that before we embark on a pretty huge effort to do a public education campaign and put it on. on the ballot. Said Sexton.
The Trust for Public Land, whose stated mission is to create parks and protect land for people, drew up a proposal for Alachua County before the approval of the sales tax paying for the program in 2008.
Wild Places, Public Spaces was extended by voters in 2016. The program has acquired and improved environmentally sensitive lands and funded recreational facilities.
Sexton said the program’s half-cent sales tax funding could be cut before the expiration date at the end of 2024 and then mixed with the new infrastructure surcharge if voters approve it.
“The discussion is still ongoing as to when this will appear on the ballot,” Sexton said. “It could be as early as 2022. It is an election outside the presidential election. It is the election to the post of governor. Nothing is set in stone. “
History shows voters in Alachua County are wary of public transit taxes
Generally speaking, residents of Alachua County have been receptive to sales tax increases to pay for a wide variety of causes – other than road improvements.
In November 2000, they voted for a quarter-mil property tax to fund the Alachua County Forever program, which deals with land conservation.
In 2001, voters approved a one-year sales tax increase of one cent to help pay for a new criminal courthouse.
In August 2004, voters approved a seven-year, quarter-cent sales tax for CHOICES, which allowed uninsured residents to work access to health care.
But the public has had a reluctance to approve sales tax increases to pay for transportation projects.
For example, in November 2014, a referendum to impose a 1 cent sales tax on road improvements was abolished.
In November 2012, the “Fix Our Roads” initiative, which proposed a 15 and three-quarter sales tax to fund road repairs, failed by a margin of 67% to 33%.
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Local sales tax rates differ across Florida
Most counties in Florida, Alachua included, charge a 7% sales tax. There are 16 counties which charge 7.5%.
Citrus County charges the lowest rate at 6%. Five counties charge 6.5%.
Hillsborough County was charging the maximum sales tax rate of 8.5% – until last month.
As of March 16, businesses had to adjust the sales tax rate to 7.5%. The tax on an additional penny had been in effect since January 2019 and was the highest rate in the state.
The Florida Supreme Court agreed that the additional tax approved by voters was unconstitutional because it left spending allowances to a group of private citizens instead of elected county commissioners.
Alachua County school officials say the sales tax could provide vital funding in addition to federal coronavirus recovery dollars for an initiative to get high-speed internet up and running throughout the county. Some places in rural areas do not have high speed internet. School officials noticed how serious the problem was when students started learning online and some in rural areas could not do their classroom work because their internet was not sufficient.
“Even where the cost (of the Internet) is not an issue, geography is,” said schools spokeswoman Jackie Johnson. “There are some parts of the county where you just can’t get good broadband access. For most of the tools we use now, students need high speed Internet access.”