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Citizen Coalition Takes Stand Against Conservation Tax

(Amalie Batchelder/WUFT News)
(Amalie Batchelder/WUFT News)

With early voting starting Monday, a newly formed citizen-based group, called the Citizen Coalition PC, has formed to face against the Wild Spaces Public Places Referendum.

Originally voted on in Nov. 2008, the sales tax only lasted for two years.

The coalition hopes to educate citizens voting Monday through Nov. 8 about what the half-cent sales tax is all about.

In late September, the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce announced that it would not support the renewal of the sales tax, urging the Alachua Board of County Commissioners to focus instead on school infrastructure.

The coalition, which spoke individually during citizen comment at the City Commissioner’s meeting Thursday night, also noted education and transportation as sorely lacking in Alachua County chairwoman for the coalition, Darlene Pifalo, said.

Pifalo, a realtor in Gainesville, said that there are more important priorities that need to be addressed, like fixing the roads, than the sales tax promises to deliver.

“When you’re driving through different counties, you can always tell when you’re into Alachua County because the roads suck,” Pifalo said.

Debbie Martinez, a founding member of the coalition, thinks that the sales tax will do more harm than good for Gainesville. While it will potentially add more parks and bike paths, she thinks it misses other issues.

Martinez, a retired nurse and life-long Democrat, said that this tax, and other sales taxes levied against Alachua County residents, hurt local businesses and lower-income families.

“We need to focus on our needs first before we keep spending more on our wants,” she said.

District 1 Commissioner Charles Goston also cited his opposition to the tax, referencing the lack of concrete information about the tax itself.

“I have a serious problem with this,” Goston said, “because if you want somebody to support what you are initiating, it is imperative that you provide them with all the information,”

Goston thinks schools and roads need to be improved before parks.

“I don’t care if another child in district one ever learns how to bounce a basketball or throw a football,” Goston said. “I want to send some kids to Harvard [or] Yale. But that’s not mentioned in this.”

While there are numerous issues affecting Alachua County, improving the quality of life through placing emphasis on culture and nature is key to achieving goals, executive director for Alachua Conservation Trust, Tom Kay said.

“Overall, it’s going to have a tremendous affect on the community, and it also reflects of what your community values,” he said.

Kay didn’t know about the citizen coalition against the sales tax but surmised that these are citizens who are “noisy about any kind of expense or tax.”

Overall, Kay said that there’s always more that committees can do to educate the public about what they’re doing.

“I think there’s been great transparency as far as identifying what projects will be funded by this,” he said. “It was very specific.”

Thomas Hawkins, former city commissioner from 2008 to 2014 and an attorney in Gainesville, supports the referendum because of the potential boost to the economy. The said the quality of life that a city can provide gives potential employees and businesses is incentives to relocate here.

“Communities are successful because people want to live there. Employers want to be able to attract good employees,” he said.

Hawkins has no affiliation with the political committee for the sales tax today, but as a commissioner he did vote for the tax in 2008. This year he will be voting for the sales tax as a citizen and not a commissioner and for the One Mill for Schools property tax rate.

During the city commissioner meeting Thursday night, two commissioners voiced their opposition to the tax, and three voiced their support.

Among those who voiced their opposition were Commissioner Todd Chase from district two.

Chase said that citizens of Alachua County have given millions of dollars to conservation while other important issues have been pushed aside. He said that the majority of people in power who have pushed for this tax are from the Alachua Conservation Trust.

“I’ve been a city commissioner for five and a half years,” Chase said. “And I know too much. As a city commissioner, as a member of these other cities, we’re basically being forced to accept what they want.”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, of district four, voiced his support of the tax citing the tax’s ability to create better parks and bike trails through Gainesville.

“If this tax passes, we’re going to be able to make an amazing parks system throughout our community,” he said.

Fifty percent of the sales tax would be from tourism, Hayes-Santos said. Those citizens bringing in money from outside of Alachua County are spending money on things from football games to restaurant meals.

District 3 Commissioner Craig Carter voiced his support of the tax, stating that the projects that it hopes to be accomplish should have been fixed a while ago.

“I support this, as a Gainesville city commissioner, as a way to reach a goal that will personally benefit all the citizens. If I’m wrong, I apologize,” Carter said.

This has been a way for Carter to become better acquainted with what the sales tax hopes to accomplish. Goston, on the other hand, says he can’t support something if he isn’t given explicit information about it.

All he asks is to be given information so that he can relay it, especially, to those people in his district. This would allow them to make informed decisions rather than vote for someone solely based on party affiliation.

Both Goston and Hayes-Santos agreed that voters should be able to know the ins and outs of issues before going to the polls. Goston urged people to use each day leading up to when they vote to investigate and to do research,

“You’ve got 19 days to wake up,” he said.

Janiece is a reporter for WUFT News. She can be reached at news@wuft.org or 352-392-6397.