Alachua County Voters Reject Sales Surtax for Transportation Funding

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After polls closed at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Alachua County's Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter and her staff counted votes from 63 precincts at the office before posting elections results to the website late that night.
After polls closed at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Alachua County's Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter and her staff counted votes from 63 precincts at the office before posting elections results to the website late that night.

A county-wide surtax was struck down by voters on Tuesday after 60 percent voted against the one-cent sales tax increase that would have been used to fund road repairs, increase bus routes and finance pedestrian projects.

The surtax was unanimously supported by Gainesville’s City Commission and was projected to bring in $240 million of revenue over eight years to supplement declining gas tax revenues that cover road repair and bus and pedestrian projects.

The tax would have cost a family of four approximately $109 annually, according to the Moving Alachua County Forward website.

More than 78,000 people voted on the initiative Tuesday, according to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections. The 20 percent difference in votes for the surtax surprised both supporters and opponents alike.

“I didn’t think it would pass, but I didn’t think we would do that well,” said Debbie Martinez, chairwoman of the Citizen Coalition, a political action committee that had handed out flyers and yard signs opposing the surtax.

Gainesville City Commissioner Helen Warren called the rejection of the surtax a disappointment. She said she hadn’t expected it to fail because it had received support from a range of institutions like the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Florida League of Cities, Inc., and the Gainesville Sun.

“The leadership was on board for supporting the surtax, and it’s just the individual voters who disagreed with that,” Warren said.

Warren said the city already has road repair projects in the works that will still be completed, but the city will have to look through its budget to find additional money to repair other city roads and may have to reassess which roads are priorities.

“It’s going to become more expensive the longer we put it off,” she said.

Alachua County wasn’t the only county to have the tax rejected on Tuesday. Pinellas and Polk Counties also had one-cent sales surtaxes for transit funding on its ballots, and voters rejected both with approximately a 60-40 split in Pinellas, and a 70-30 split in Polk.

If passed, 40 percent of Gainesville’s portion of the surtax revenues would have been dedicated to the Regional Transit System to replace old busses, increase service and add other amenities such as updated technology and bus bays.

Chip Skinner, RTS marketing and communications supervisor, said the RTS will be looking for additional money now that the tax has been voted down. RTS plans on negotiating with the city, applying for federal grants and speaking to The University of Florida and Santa Fe College transportation fee committees to possibly increase transportation fees for students in an effort to increase funding.

Skinner said even though the tax won’t go into effect, RTS will still work toward providing more bus stop amenities and route changes.

“Those may occur later,” he said. “They are still on our long-term plan… but it will just take us longer to implement them as funding comes available.”

Inside the Alachua County Administration Building on Tuesday night, about 10 concerned citizens watched the poll results update on a projector.

Kurt Kent, a Gainesville resident since 1970, said he was shocked the initiative did so poorly with voters because it seemed very carefully crafted.

“It seems to indicate that the people who complain the most about bad roads aren’t willing to pay for them,” he said. “I just hope they keep their mouths shut and quit complaining for the years it’s going to take to get the roads back on the ballot.”

Skinner said he thought the poll results for the tax would be closer to 50-50, but he added that one factor possibly affecting the gap was that the PAC against the tax seemed more active in spreading its message than the PAC supporting the tax.

“A little bit more from [the supporting PAC] may have helped us get a better percentage, but I think it still would have been a close vote,” he said.

Martinez said the Citizen Coalition PAC, which took a strong stance against the tax, is a non-partisan organization with a goal to improve local government.

Martinez said one indicator of how county voters felt about the tax was that local businesses were much more willing than “big-box stores” to put up flyers advising against the tax.

A self-described life-long democrat, Martinez agreed that the county’s roads need repairs, but said it was unfair to tax county residents for an issue the county hadn’t made a budget priority for years.

“They need to be better stewards of the money they have taken from us before they ask us for more,” she said.

Martinez said the issue of road repair isn’t going anywhere, but she hopes that the city and county commissions try to best serve the public interest before raising taxes.

“They’ve dug such a big hole, they probably will need the public’s help,” Martinez said. “But they have to be more transparent and open and honest and earn the public’s trust first. And now they have that opportunity.

About Lauren Flannery

Lauren is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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