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Transportation tax proposal dialogue opens

ALACHUA – The citizens of York County in South Carolina came together in the late 1990s to address problems with their county’s public roads. They made a list of the road improvement projects they wanted to see finished, and they got their county commission to put them on the ballot.

The Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce is looking at York County as a case study on how to improve the roads and other modes of transportation in Alachua County. During a Chamber of Commerce meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 3 in Alachua, members of the public and the local business community came to discuss a proposal on how on how to work through the citizenry to determine transportation project priorities that could be funded through a one-cent sales tax.

The idea is for a bottom-up movement in which the citizens of Alachua County make a list ranking the priority of each transportation project, said Kamal Latham, vice president of public policy for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce. Projects would be scheduled in order, and completion of one project would be assured before moving on to the next priority.

The proposal is in the dialogue stage, so elements are fluid and not set in stone.

The residents of the county could bring it forward through a petition, or have the county commission put it on the ballot.

The projects would be paid for with a one cent sales tax that the Chamber of Commerce recommends last no longer than eight years.  

“They used a bottom-up process where they worked through the citizens,” Latham said of York County. "Under this collaborative approach, their various municipalities worked together to address an inadequate transportation system, which helped unify many communities," Latham said in an interview with Alachua County Today.

Poor roads have a negative impact on the economy, he said.

“You can’t connect the workforce to the workplace very conveniently.”

The plan would help out not only the cities, but the communities all around the county, Latham said, building a network of better roads. In York County, the model helped rural areas as well as urban ones.

“It wasn’t all downtown city issues,” he said.

Rather than the funds being divided up among the cities, they could be used in a common fund to renovate roads or complete other projects throughout the county as chosen by voters.

Distrust of the county commission was a prevalent theme among the citizens who spoke at the meeting. Several raised concerns about how the people of Alachua County would make sure the money would be used for its intended purpose.

Ted Wilson, of the Alachua Chamber of Commerce, asked how the county commission could be held accountable to the list of priorities rather than taking money for its pet projects.

Latham said there would have to be a dialogue about issues just like that.

Also from the Alachua Chamber of Commerce, David Pope said the county has the worst of both worlds. “We’re taxed too much and we have terrible roads,” he said.

Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper supported the idea of a ground-up movement to get the county in line with what the residents want.

“It’s time for us to say no,” he said. “This is what we want to see happen here.”

The debate over the plan to use York County’s model for transportation projects will play out over the next several months, Latham said.

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Historic High Springs building on display

HIGH SPRINGS – Wild Spaces and Public Places oversight committee members met in the Santa Fe Room of the historic High Springs Elementary School and Community Center to see how their $538,238 in sales tax funds have been spent.

Wild Spaces and Public Places is a two-year, half-cent sales tax initiative approved by the voters in 2008, paying for land acquisition and construction projects in the county.

“For the last three or four meetings, the committee has been meeting in the cities where grant funds were distributed to see how the tax money was used,” said Ramesh Buch, Wild Spaces and Public Places staff liaison and program manager for Alachua County Forever, dedicated to preserving the history of the area. He explained that committee members received photographs and cost breakdowns as each municipality worked on their projects, but most of the committee members had never actually seen the finished projects. “This year they decided the best way to see the work that had been done was to hold a meeting in those cities,” he said.

Some cities have not used all of the money allotted to them. However, High Springs has completed their projects and has used all their funds.

During the meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 28, City Manager Ed Booth took the small group on a tour of the renovated school and community center to see those improvements, answering questions along the way. He talked about the previous condition of the building and was not only able to show before pictures, but also took them to see two rooms that had not been renovated due to funding limitations. Booth explained that he was still searching for additional grant funds to complete the renovation of those rooms and hoped to be able to do so sometime in the future.

“I think it’s a great project that has historical significance for the people of High Springs,” said John Martin, Florida League of Cities representative on the oversight committee.

“Although I am not from High Springs, I can understand the significance of saving the school building. In Hawthorne, the school I went to and my dad went to has been torn down,” he said. “I wish we could have preserved it like they did in High Springs. I commend the city and residents for making the choice to save the building. The only problem I heard from the city manager was that people did not know the building was available to rent, but they are working on that issue and I have no doubt that will soon change,” he said.

During the tour, the museum was open and museum displays were being worked on. Committee members were able to see the room and how it was being put to use since the building’s reopening this year. In addition, committee members said that using the building for office space and to rent out to the public was the intended use of the building in their opinion.

“Before the renovation, the building was condemnable,” Booth said. “Floors were falling in and $44,000 went to the cost of demolishing one wing of the building next to the post office.”

An additional $300,000 in historic preservation grant funds went into repairing the roof, replacing windows, painting and other façade improvements. The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) put the bulk of the money into the building at $450,000, according to Booth. “All told, $1,340,000 was spent to demolish, renovate the inside and outside of the building and make it habitable,” Booth said.

In addition to the $431,028 from the half-cent tax, which was spent on the inside of the school building, records show that another $85,271 was spent on the Civic Center, $6,913 was spent on parking improvements at Civic Center Park and $12,026 was spent on construction of public restrooms at Catherine Taylor Park.

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'Average' water levels could hamper Labor Day plans

W - Labor day 02-S5000881HIGH SPRINGS – Labor Day is coming up, but anybody with plans of visiting their favorite river or spring should check with state park authorities first.

Swimming and boating activities may not be allowed in some areas after last week’s major rainstorms in the county, particularly north of the High Springs area.

After last week’s deluge, retention ponds in the area are filled to the brim, or more likely, spilling over. A sinkhole has reportedly opened up on Poe Springs Road. Despite this, officials at O’Leno State Park, just north of High Springs, said the water levels are average for the first time this year.

Terri Newmans, assistant park ranger at O’Leno, called the rushing waters of the Santa Fe River average, even as she trekked through the water-soaked grounds in the still falling rain.

The rain had been pouring in for more than five hours that day, but the river’s water level was at 35.7 feet. The average is 34 feet.

If the water levels fall too low, the park could be closed to swimmers because the water would be considered stagnant, Newmans said. Swimming in stagnant waters can be a risk because dangerous microorganisms can thrive in those conditions. If the water levels rise too high, parks might have to close trails. About two or three weeks ago, O’Leno had to close trails for a few days when the water level reached 39.7 feet, she said.

For comparison, after Tropical Storm Debbie hit in June 2012, the water level was close to 50 feet. Park management closed down River Rise State Preserve.

Rainfall in Aug. 25, 2012 was about 40 feet. The same day in 2013 was listed at about 37 feet, according to Weather Underground, an online weather service, backing up Newman’s claim that the river is at an average level for this time of year.  

The National Weather Service does not expect that to last, as they have issued a flood warning for the Santa Fe River this week. North of High Springs, the river could approach a flood stage by Tuesday.

The complexity and interconnectedness of the river systems could play a role in any potential flooding.

Between 4 and 8 inches of rain fell in the upper reaches of the Alapaha and Withlacoochee rivers in the last seven days, causing renewed minor flooding on the Withlacoochee River in Valdosta. The Alapaha and Withlacoochee rivers are major tributaries of the Suwannee River, accounting for almost 40 percent of the Suwannee’s watershed.

The National Weather Service warned that swimming and diving on the rivers and springs over the Labor Day weekend might have to be curtailed, due to the rising water levels.

While the levels at O’Leno might be average for this time of year, some people might have to reschedule their plans for the holiday. Park alerts are issued daily, and information about forecasts, rainfall and current river readings are available online at www.mysuwanneeriver.com or at 386-362-6626 or 800-604-2272.

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New water meters for Newberry

NEWBERRY – The Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) has teamed up with the City of Newberry to prevent wasted water.

The SRWMD is providing about $28,550 to help the City of Newberry replace old water meters with newer, more effective ones. The new meters are more precise, and will help the city detect when water is being wasted, saving water once leaks are repaired, according to the SRWMD.

“The district is pleased to partner with the City of Newberry to save water and achieve water conservation goals,” said executive director for the SRWMD, Ann Shortelle.

The funds come as part of the Regional Initiative Valuing Environmental Resources program.

It is estimated that 10.6 percent of the city’s potable water use is currently unaccounted for, due to leaks and various unmetered municipal water uses, according to a water audit undertaken by the Florida Rural Water Association.

Replacing old, inefficient meters and enhancing system accountability will provide the city with the ability to improve their management operations and to readily identify and stop leaks, according to the SRWMD. The project has the potential to save about 21 million gallons of water per year.

“The program will allow us to address leakage in the system and obtain more accurate water use data,” said Newberry City Manager Keith Ashby. “We are appreciative of the district’s assistance with this project.”

The SRWMD set aside nearly $1.5 million for the fiscal year 2012-2013 to help local governments conserve water, find alternative water supplies, protect themselves from flooding, restore their ecosystems and improve water quality.

Fourteen local governments, including Newberry, have received funds from the program.

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Alachua breathing new life into downtown

W - Alachua Street work DSC 1273

ALACHUA– Renovations are underway for downtown Alachua as part of a larger plan to develop the area.

Northwest 150th Avenue, which runs by Skinner Field, is getting repaved with new asphalt. The makeover started Aug. 23, but it’s only part of the big picture.

“There absolutely is a bigger plan,” said Mike New, public services director for the city.

The goal is to make Northwest 150th Avenue and Northwest 142nd Terrace more like Main Street, he said. The improvements to Northwest 150th Avenue were phase two of a three-part plan.

New said, “150th avenue is going to have the same look and feel as Main Street does.”

The first phase was installing a retention reservoir under Skinner Field across from Alachua City Hall in April to help combat problems with flooding.

Renovating Northwest 142nd Terrace will be phase three.

Other than laying down new asphalt and pavement, the improvements will include landscaping and the installation of trash receptacles, new sidewalks, gutters on the curbs, straightening out the intersection between Northwest 142nd Terrace and U.S. Highway 441 and adding new parking spaces.

Property was acquired from five landowners to make room for the renovations, New said.

The total cost of the project was originally about $1.8 million, but the city changed some details and saved around $100,000. Northwest 150th Avenue should be fully repaved by the end of the week, he said, and the entire project should be finished by around February of next year. Work on Northwest 142nd Terrace should start this September. The project is paid for by the Downtown Redevelopment Trust Board (DRTB), which can only initiate projects in certain parts of town.

It had been planned by the DRTB since 2006 or 2007, New said.

“What the board wanted to do was interconnect Main Street with the Alachua Town Center, he said. “Tie them together so you can have that community feel.”

New said he thinks the project will be significant for Alachua.

“In 30 years, it will be spoken of with the same significance that Main Street is today.”

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