Tue07292014

Last updateTue, 22 Jul 2014 9pm

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Complex annexation law at center of debate

ALACHUA – The Alachua County Commission reopened discussions on proposed changes to the Boundary Adjustment Act (BAA), a special law that regulates annexations in Alachua County. Passed by the State Legislature in 1990 as an answer to rein in growing urbanized areas outside of city limits, the Act is unique to Alachua County and does not apply to any other area of the state.

The local delegation to the State Legislature declined to introduce earlier proposed changes in 2009 after two municipalities spoke against it.

One of the suggested amendments is to change how frequently the urban reserve areas are reviewed. Under the Act, a reserve area is the unincorporated property around a given city that is urbanized or expected to become urbanized. Property within a municipality’s urban reserve area is supposed to be primed for future annexation under the terms of the Act. County officials are proposing that reserve areas are reviewed and updated every 10 years rather than every five years as the Act currently requires, said Ken Zeichner, Alachua County’s principal planner.

Also proposed is creating a new section to make it easier to process the annexation of enclaves, which are unincorporated areas surrounded by land that is part of a municipality. In part, the Act aims to reduce and prevent enclaves as they often create confusion and difficulty in determining what entity is responsible for providing various services to the parcels of land, including police and fire protection.

The county’s appointed committee reviewed the Act in 2008-2009.

Alachua County Commissioner Chuck Chestnut, who was a member of the State Legislature at the time, explained how earlier proposed changes failed to make it into the BAA.

Chestnut said although the amendments had unanimous support from the municipalities, changes failed after commissioners from High Springs and Micanopy went to Tallahassee and spoke against it.

“They thought if they spoke against it that it would end the Boundary Adjustment Act in Alachua County – period,” Chestnut said.

The local delegation to the State Legislature decided in 2009 that unless the county and all nine municipalities agreed, then they were not going to introduce the bill.

The Alachua County Commission hopes to minimize dissent and that all nine municipalities in the county will support the proposed revisions to the BAA. But uniform support for changes doesn’t appear to exist. Jean Calderwood, the former mayor and commissioner of the City of Alachua, said she favors complete repeal of the Act. Pointing to more evolved state laws that now exist, she said the BAA is simply too cumbersome.

At the time the Act was first adopted, Florida’s general laws did not provide for certain planning mechanisms. In the time since the early 1990s, however, the State has vastly expanded its planning and annexation laws, which apply to the rest of Florida, Calderwood argues.

“My position is that it still should be repealed and not revised,” Calderwood said, noting that the state’s general annexation and planning laws are sufficient.

At one time, she was also a member of the county’s taskforce charged with proposing revisions to the Act and removal of outdated language.

The Boundary Adjustment Act makes annexation slower and more expensive than the general statute. It only affects citizens who want to annex their property voluntarily into another city in the county, she said.

LaCrosse officials too have had their concerns with the boundary adjustment act.

Mayor Dianne Dubberly said her city ran into difficulty when they tried to annex a property known as “Praise Ranch.”  She said if the county doesn’t believe the annexation request is compliant with the Act then it can protest. If it can’t otherwise settle the dispute, then the county can take the annexing city to court – as it did. It was eventually annexed, but it came with hefty legal fees that can strap a small city, said Dubberly.

The town council has expressed an interest in seeing the entire Boundary Adjustment Act repealed and going with the state statute that addresses annexation, Dubberly said.

“We [Alachua County] are the exception to the rule,” she said. “Everyone else is going by the state rule.”

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Florida Rock tax cut hits Newberry hard

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Vulcan Materials, located in Newberry on County Road 235, successfully appealed its 2012 tax assessment, leaving the City of Newberry in a financial bind.

NEWBERRY – The City of Newberry must deal with a $312,297 loss in tax revenue as the budget year comes to an end in September. The blow came when the taxable value of a major industrial taxpayer, Vulcan Materials Co., formerly known as Florida Rock, was cut nearly in half.

“The difficult part for the city is the timing,” said City Manager Keith Ashby.

“The money is important, and we will have to consider how we make up the amount of money that we have lost, but if we had known at the beginning of the tax year we could just adjust.

“When I’m told three quarters of the way through the budget year, there’s no way to recover.”

While the tax collector mails tax bills at the end of November, that bill represents the year that was just completed, said John Power, the chief deputy tax collector. Newberry, like all other cities, creates its budget months before they receive this bill, acting upon a summer-time preliminary tax roll calculation.

But the devaluation of the Florida Rock property came late in the budget year because it was the result of an appeal by the owner, not the initial valuation by Alachua County Property Appraiser Ed Crapo. The lower value came down from the value adjustment board, a third party that can adjust the property appraiser’s taxable values for properties.

“It’s not that the date is so important,” Power said, but the county’s value adjustment board changed the taxable value of one of Newberry’s largest tax contributors from nearly $174 million to $88.35 million, and Newberry found out in June that it lost about 20 percent of its tax revenues on which it was already operating.

“You know, they say not to put your eggs all in one basket?” Power said. “This is a big egg for Newbery, and it just got cut in half.”

Vulcan Materials approached the county’s value adjustment board because it believed the facility’s taxes were too high, said Crapo.

The major devalue came from how the value adjustment board evaluated the Florida Rock property and the board’s magistrate will present the reasons behind the devaluation.

Crapo believes the magistrate’s recommendation to devalue Florida Rock was “misapplying both the law and appraisal theory.”

Crapo said as an example, the law requires pollution control equipment to be valued a certain way and believes that in 2011 and possibly in 2012 as well, the magistrate misapplied the process.

“The magistrate called such equipment an exemption, and it’s not,” said Crapo.

The appraisers have access to a list of equipment that is appraised differently from the facility, he said. “I think it was done wrong.”

Another aspect involves a tax representative hired by the company who works with the board, and is the same person who approached the same magistrate to lower the 2011 value, said Crapo.

“There are a number of different errors that have been made in their arrival at this evaluation,” he said.

“It’s not right that the rest of us have to pay their share of the taxes, because they are unwilling to do so,” said Crapo.

Crapo has already filed litigation against the company, Vulcan Materials Co., for the year 2011 when the property was devalued by $47.7 million.

He promises to file suit for 2012 because the property was devalued $85.38 million.

It will begin a “huge two year process of working through the court system,” he said.

“I’m asking the courts to determine what’s right and what’s wrong because I believe what the value adjustment board is doing is grossly wrong.”

Further complicating the situation, the city isn’t usually involved in filing suit for tax values, so the appraiser must support the set tax values in front of the board to give taxing authorities, like Newberry, “some bit of stability,” he said.

Crapo had discussions with the city last summer when the 2011 devaluation occurred referencing the possibility that it may occur again in the future.

A refund of tax revenues is problematic for a municipality because of the timing of the appraisal appeals process.

“It’s a hardship; it’s a very difficult place to be in.

“But the litigation would solve the question for many years going forward,” said Crapo.

Ashby says he wishes the appraisal appeals process could be pushed back so that municipalities could be informed as soon as possible after budgets have been set.

“Then I would have 10 months to recover,” said Ashby.

Now the only viable option is the city’s reserves, he said.

“The truth of the matter is Newberry’s reserves are in good shape – probably in the best shape of any city in the area.

“But the fact of the matter of is, that is where the money will come from.”

Losing more than $300,000 is about 21 percent of the city’s $1.3 million in ad valorem tax revenue, and the city won’t know the full picture of consequences until the end of the year.

“When I build a budget for the next year I’m going to put a delta in the budget that says ‘I think I’m going to take another hit.

“And at least that way even if I get bad news at least I am prepared,” said Ashby.

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Therapy horses kick off summer reading at Alachua Library

W - Theraphy Horses Alachua Library copyChildren at the Alachua library raise their hands as they vow to be kind to all animals as a tribute to the memory of Catherine Hubbard, one of the Sandy Hook children for whom Catherine the horse is named.

 

HIGH SPRINGS – The Alachua Library, located at 14913 NW 140th St., called upon the folks at Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses and asked them to join their staff on Thursday, June 13 to help kick off the library’s summer reading program.

The “Reading is Magic” program garnered such enthusiasm from area children and their parents that the library had to issue tickets and limit entry to 150 people in order to maintain fire code limits. Families who could not get tickets still waited patiently outdoors to see the little horses as they arrived and walked into the library building.

The “Reading is Magic” program included a video, a book reading and a visit from some of the tiny horses, along with their caretakers Debbie and Jorge Garcia-Bengochea.

The book talked about baby horses and included the introduction of a future therapy horse foal named Sweetheart, who went to the library with her mother, Vanny, to visit with the children.

A video about the therapy horses as they worked inside various children’s hospitals was also shown. The video was dedicated to Catherine Hubbard, a child lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy and for whom one of the young horses was named.

Following the video, Catherine joined the group and visited with the children. “It was awesome to see the real, live horse after reading about her in the book,” said one young visitor.

The audience was told that Catherine was named after the little Sandy Hook girl after they heard her parents say she was always kind to animals. “We don’t usually do that [name a horse after a specific person],” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, “but we made an exception this time for this horse and this little girl.” After the children heard the story about Catherine, they made a public pledge to always be kind to animals.

This was the first public program the group has participated in since their return to the Alachua/High Springs area from Moore, Okla., where they were requested to visit and help the town heal from the devastating EF5 tornado of May 20, 2013. The group was forced to run for their lives while in Moore as a second tornado bore down on the area on May 31. The therapy horses and their caretakers returned to Moore again after the second tornado left the area and stayed a few more days to help those children and families who had suffered through two devastating tornadoes in nine days.

Each horse goes through a training program to learn to walk up stairs, ride in elevators, straddle tubes and wires and offer love and compassion to those people who need it most.

“Invariably, our horses will seek out the person in a room who needs them the most,” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. Not just any horse can be a therapy horse. “They are special horses chosen for their empathy and intelligence,” she said.

Donations to the Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horse program are needed to help keep the program active. While both of the Garcia-Bengocheas work jobs to help continue the program, “we are always in the red,” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. A 501(c)(3) tax deductible donation will help the organization continue their work visiting nursing homes, children’s hospitals, hospice facilities, and disaster areas where they are needed to help heal communities and bring a little joy into people’s lives. Contact can be made with the group online at http://horse-therapy.org/ or by a Google search for Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.

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Tanker tips on I-75 ramp, closes exit

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An overturned tractor-trailer closed down the I75 northbound exit ramp at U.S. 441in Alachua Saturday.

ALACHUA – The northbound exit ramp at U.S. 441 was blocked Saturday following a single-vehicle accident.

 Israel Rivera-Colon, 55, of Haines City, Fla., was driving a tractor-trailer transporting a tanker on Interstate 75. While trying to follow the exit ramp, Rivera-Colon overturned the 2007 International tractor on its driver’s side at about 6 a.m., according to Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) records.  

The exit ramp was closed, but the FHP encouraged alternate routes at the State Road 222 exit at the 390 mile post, or the County Road 236 exit at the 404 mile post.

Rivera-Colon was taken to North Florida Regional Medical Center to be treated for minor injuries. He was cited for careless driving, which carries a $154 fine in Alachua County. He will also get points on his license, said FHP spokeswoman Tracy Hisler-Pace. His vehicle sustained about $78,000 worth of damage.

Hisler-Pace said she wasn't aware of any hazardous material in the tanker.

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Alachua firm lands $1.1 million in tax credits

ALACHUA – The County Commission has approved a tax incentive for an Alachua-based company that designs high-efficiency batteries.

Encell Technology, located just outside the city limits of Alachua, will receive a little over $1 million in tax credits from the county and the state.  

The state and county will be responsible for 80 and 20 percent of the $1.1 million tax credit, respectively. The tax credit is called a qualified target industry incentive, and is based on three things: the number of jobs a company expects to bring to the county, the average wage of that company's employees compared to the average wage in the county and the amount of money the company will need to invest in new equipment that is taxable by the county.

In Encell's case, their incentive will last for six years. The company estimates over that time period, it will create 167 jobs in the area through its expanded facility located off U.S. Highway 441 in the former Energizer campus. It also expects its employees to be paid two to three times the average wage for Alachua County.

"We're bringing in everything from Ph.D level jobs down to assembly jobs," said Encell spokesman Chris Maier.

The projected annual wage for the new jobs will average about $73,000, with $15,000 in benefits, according to Encell.

Encell is considering Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina as possible locations for an expansion. The current location will require a $7 million investment to bring it up to regulatory requirements for a production facility.

Encell is currently working on an environmentally-friendly, high-capacity battery that can be used to store energy from solar panels and wind farms, as well as provide backup power for data centers and cell towers.

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