County leaders are in the early stages of a sales tax measure that would help pay for solar panels, affordable housing and broadband Internet. The one-cent tax is projected to rake in $500 million in its lifetime.
(TNS) — County leaders are considering another sales tax referendum for the presidential ballot in 2020 that would help pay for solar panels, affordable housing and broadband Internet, and extend the Wild Spaces and Public Places sales tax 20 more years.
The proposed one-cent sales tax would start up in 2025, when current voter approval for the Wild Spaces tax expires.
Alachua County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson pitched the idea at a recent meeting, combining areas of interest from local activist groups and officials.
If approved, county officials estimate that the sales tax could generate around $500 million over its lifespan. Though he supports the idea of a combined infrastructure tax, Hutchinson said he wonders if the scope of the referendum is too much.
"The big fat question is, "Does the broadband Internet drag the whole thing down because it attracts opposition?'" he said.
In 2016, voters approved an eight-year, half-cent sales tax, known as Wild Spaces, which went toward parks and conservation land. The new referendum would pick up in 2025 and run through 2045.
When it takes effect, it would add a half cent to Alachua County's already seven cents sales tax. Purchases for medical supplies, groceries and utility bills are excluded from the sales tax. Vehicle purchases would be hit with the tax, but only up to the first $5,000, according to state law.
The referendum would also help pay for the county's side of Internet expansion, an initiative pushed by the Gainesville City Commission. Preliminary estimates show that venture would cost about $213 million if the plan includes the county and smaller cities.
"What we're going to try to do is do it countywide," Hutchinson said. "My goal is to have all the city and all the urbanized area covered."
But with that expansion comes risk, as noted in a consultant's report provided to Gainesville commissioners last month.
If the referendum includes Internet, Hutchinson said he would expect area providers Cox Communications and AT&T to fight the referendum, which would then impact the county's ability to address affordable housing.
The referendum could provide about $150 million toward affordable housing, something the county and city have struggled to address over the years. The money would go toward construction and acquiring complexes, but couldn't be used for rent subsidies.
The sales tax would also provide funding for the county to build a solar field that would save it close to $4 million annually on its Gainesville Regional Utilities bills.
"My goal with the surtax is to free up that $4 million and put that toward roads," Hutchinson said.
County voters have voted down an infrastructure tax to fix roads three previous times. The proposed referendum would be a way around that.
But also on the 2020 ballot will be a school district one mill referendum, which could have some residents picking which increase they want.
School Board chair Rob Hyatt said he doesn't know enough about the county referendum plan yet to develop an opinion, but said he commends Hutchinson's big-picture thinking.
"The hard part is knowing if it's too much or too much of a reach," Hyatt said. "I think it's a bold move and a bold idea."
The last two district ballot measures passed with other tax referendums on the ballot. Hyatt said that's because the community widely supports funding k-12 education. He said he doesn't know if the county's tax will spoil the school district's plans.
"We've done pretty well with being very specific to saying here's exactly what it goes to," he said.
Voters will also get to decide on the president that year, which will bring out droves of registered Democrats who make up the majority of voters in the county.
Hutchinson said it's more fair to place the referendum on a high-turnout election year. If it fails, county leaders can attempt to individualize issues, such as Wild Spaces, in 2022.
In August, county officials will bring commissioners a preliminary analysis of the proposal.
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