Frequently Asked Questions

Wild Spaces – Public Places

Alachua County, Florida
November 8, 2022

Frequently Asked Questions


1.  What is Wild Spaces – Public Places?

Wild Spaces - Public Places (WSPP) is a referendum on the ballot of November 8. 2022 in Alachua County Florida. The title on the ballot reads:  "Wild Spaces Public Places, Road Repair, Fire Stations, and Affordable Housing One Percent Sales Tax"

Referendums passed in 2008 and 2016 were also called "Wild Spaces - Public Places", but there are differences between the former measures – which were only for recreation, parks, and land conservation, and the current measure which includes repair of existing roads, new fire stations and renovations to public facilities, acquiring property for affordable housing, and funding economic development projects.

2.  What is the actual wording on the November 8, 2022 ballot?

Shall Alachua County: acquire and improve lands for conservation, wildlife habitat, water quality, and recreation; operate and maintain parks and recreation facilities; repair roads and improve road safety; construct and renovate fire stations and other public facilities; acquire lands for affordable housing; fund economic development projects pursuant to Florida Statute 212.055(2)(D)(3); provide citizen oversight and independent audit; by levying a one present sales surtax for ten years starting January 1, 2023?

                                     [    ]  FOR the one-cent sales tax

                                     [    ]  AGAINST the one-cent sales tax


3.  If it passes, why is the sales tax only going up ½ cent?


There is a current ½ cent surtax from the former Wild Spaces - Public Places (WSPP) referendum that will be repealed IF this new WSPP passes, so the net effect is a ½ penny increase from the current tax level.  If this does not pass, the current WSPP ½ cent surtax will remain in effect until it ends in 2024.


4. How will the funds be split between the various purposes?

Half of the program will be dedicated to land conservation and parks, and the other half will go toward road repair and safety, fire stations and other public facilities, and provision of affordable housing. Each of the nine municipalities and Alachua County will receive a portion of the funding, according to a state formula based on population.  Some of the funds will be shared in partnership projects between the county and the cities.  As in the past, substantial amounts of matching funds from federal and state sources will also be available since we have dedicated local matching funds. 

5. A portion of the referendum that provides for "Public Places" includes roads. If passed, how will these road repair funds be spent?

In Alachua County, there are federal, state, county, city, and private roads.  In 2021, only 25% of County roads were in "Good" condition, while 44% of roads were in "Poor" condition.  The Alachua County Commission has 700 miles of roads and spends over $8.4 million annually on road maintenance.  These funds are from two main sources: gas taxes ($845,000) and general revenue ($7,627,000) that comes mostly from property taxes. The annual debt payment for borrowing that paid for previous road projects is $1.9 million.

Decades ago, these funding sources were almost enough to maintain the County road network, but in 2022, they do not come close to being adequate.  The eight counties that border Alachua County, and almost every county in Florida, have an infrastructure surtax that provides funds for road repair.

The WSPP proposal is not for the creation of new county roads, just the maintenance of what we already have. Alachua County has a detailed 2021 "Pavement Management Report" that describes the plan for prioritizing future road repairs. With existing revenues, the Pavement Management Plan slightly shortens the list of roads in "Poor" condition and increases the number of roads in "Fair" and "Good" condition.  Should it pass, the WSPP funds will substantially increase the number of roads that are in Good condition within ten years.

Current surtax levels in every Florida county:  https://floridarevenue.com/Forms_library/current/dr15dss.pdf

http://edr.state.fl.us/content/local-government/data/county-municipal/2022LDSSrates.pdf

6. Why aren't roads repairs paid for entirely out of gas taxes?

The amount of gas taxes raised in Alachua County, and everywhere else in the country, is not enough to maintain our current road system. Over the last twenty years, as vehicles have become more efficient, an average mile of travel uses 29% less fuel, while the cost of road repairs has grown by 91%.  A recent estimate by Florida's counties is that existing funding for road maintenance is one half of what is necessary.  Of Florida's 67 counties, Alachua County is one of 31 that collect the maximum fuel tax permitted by state law.

https://flicg.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/PRES-20210916-County-Transportation-Funding-and-Gas-Tax-Indexing-FINAL.pdf


7. What about buses and bike paths – isn't most of our local transportation money spent on these?

Most funding for transit operations and for new buses comes from federal grants, and most users do pay a bus fare. UF and Santa Fe students voted themselves an increase in student fees that substantially funds the buses they ride and is the Regional Transit System's largest revenue source for operations.

Major bike trails are usually built with federal and state funds that are designated for this purpose. On-road bike lanes, that are usually added when roads are re-paved, are a tiny fraction (less than 2%) of local expenditures for road maintenance, and they have been proven to save at least this amount due to less damage to the road shoulder. Safety projects for bicyclists and pedestrians often come from dedicated funding streams from federal and state highway programs; if this referendum passes, we will have local funds that will attract more matching funds for needed safety improvements.


8.  Why do this with sales tax instead of some other way?

Sales taxes are one of the few ways the Legislature allows local governments to raise funds, and are considered to fairly spread out costs. In Florida, sales tax is not collected on expenditures that, in other states, do disproportionately impact lower-income people. In Florida, the following items are sales tax exempt:

 

  • Groceries
  • Medicine and medical supplies
  • Residential rent
  • Utility bills
  • Auto fuel
  • Diapers and hygiene products
  • Seeds and fertilizer
  • Personal and professional services 

 

In addition, merchandise such as clothing, emergency supplies, and some outdoor recreational gear has sales tax holidays during various weeks each year. As a regional center for employment and shopping, more than one-third of sales tax proceeds in Alachua County come from visitors or residents of adjacent counties who benefit from our infrastructure.

A property tax could be used, but this is considered less fair, and substantial amounts of property value in Alachua County are off the tax rolls.  

9. How is the funding split between the local governments?

State law has a formula that defines the funding split between all of the local governments in the County. In addition, Alachua County has indicated it will encourage each of the cities to apply to receive additional funding, and has designated $3 million for partnership projects, and allocated $3 million toward joint projects with the City of Gainesville.  The following table provides an estimate of sales tax revenue, but this will vary from year to year based on economic factors. 
 

One Percent Sales Tax Revenue Estimates for 2022
Alachua County 56.98% $ 27,983,460
City of Alachua 2.76% $ 1,355,988
Archer 0.32% $ 155,932
Gainesville 35.45% $ 17,410,774
Hawthorne 0.39% $ 189,476
High Springs 1.75% $ 861,512
LaCrosse 0.10% $ 51,157
Micanopy 0.18% $ 86,643
Newberry 1.82% $ 895,703
Waldo 0.25% $ 124,072
Countywide Total 100 % $ 49,114,715

Source: Florida Department of Revenue –
Office of Tax Research

 

10. How are lands chosen to be conserved?
The goal is to conserve lands that best protect our water supply, protect sensitive habitat, and provide for outdoor recreation. Past programs have purchased lands along lakes and rivers, forested land, open prairies, and wildlife connectors.  Most of the land is open for outdoor recreation within a couple of years of purchase, and Alachua County has an extensive trail system. Some land is protected with conservation easements that provide for continued private uses and management of the land.

The process of selecting lands has not changed since 2000 when the Alachua County Forever process was approved by the voters.  Citizens first nominate properties they believe are worthy of protection using a one-page form.  The Land Conservation Board, made up of local citizen volunteers, examines and ranks properties based on criteria like water resource protection, plant and wildlife habitat, recreational values, and ease of management and acquisition. Properties can only be purchased from willing landowners who wish to sell, and prices are based on one or more independent appraisals of fair market value.


11.  How are park improvement projects selected?


The County and most cities have a Parks Improvement Plan that lists priorities, often based on inputs from user groups and examined by citizen advisory committees. The funds raised by Wild Spaces Public Places must primarily be spent on facilities improvements and are not for routine maintenance or general operations.  Every city in Alachua County has improved parks with the two previous Wild Spaces Public Places measures. 


12.  What is the "Registry of Protected Public Places"?


Lands that are purchased with local funds are placed by the city or county commission that owns them into a Registry of Protected Public Places.  This means the land cannot be sold, swapped, or have its uses changed from conservation by future elected officials without first getting approval from the voters in a general election.  This is one of the strongest forms of protection in the nation, and is an antidote to occasional efforts by politicians to raise money by selling park land, as has occurred recently at the federal and state levels.

13. How were the project priorities for Public Places developed?

Each of the eight smaller cities, Gainesville, and Alachua County have discussed project priorities in public meetings.  Many of the cities and the county have capital project plans such as Recreation Master Plans, Fire Station capital plans, and pavement management plans.  If you would like to advocate for a particular project, please contact your elected officials for the relevant jurisdictions. 

 14. Isn’t there enough land and water already protected?

Much of the open space and natural land across our county is privately owned; they can and likely will be developed in the next few decades. The only reliable way to protect the water, wildlife, and scenery we enjoy today, and to maintain public access and recreational opportunities, is to purchase the land rather than assume regulations will permanently preserve them.  

The County has been actively conserving land since 2000.  As of 2022, about 21% of Alachua County land is in permanent protected status by the state, water management districts, the county, cities, and non-profit land trusts.  Even with this effort, out of the state’s 67 counties, Alachua County only ranks #35 in terms of percentage of land preserved and #44 in terms of acres preserved per capita.

The decision on how much land to develop and how much to conserve is for each of us to decide.  We owe it to our children and grandchildren to leave them clean, fresh water to drink and swim in, parks that are nearby, safe, and fun, and a community that has open space and forests that are shared with wildlife.

https://www.fnai.org/PDFs/MAxCounty_202201.pdf

 15. Even if the amount of land protected isn’t as much as most comparable counties in size and population, doesn't removing land from the property tax rolls impact everybody else's tax bill?

Most of the land protected through Alachua County Forever was already receiving agricultural exemptions and therefore paid very little in local property taxes.  In fact, the taxes that would have been paid annually by the 23,944 acres purchased via Alachua County Forever between 2001 and 2014 amounts to $104,849. In that same time frame, Alachua County’s tax base increased from $6.05 Billion in 2001 to $11.25 Billion in 2013. Over the course of those years the value of our tax base went up $1.19 million PER DAY. And so, the taxable value of all of the Alachua County Forever lands purchased during the entire program is made up in about four days of this appreciation in value.

16. Didn’t we already tax ourselves at the state level to save land?

No, the 2014 Constitutional Amendment - Water and Land Conservation, did not raise or lower taxes, it simply directed the Legislature to spend 1/3 of the existing Documentary Stamp Tax (paid on real estate transfers and other large purchases) for water and land protection. Historically, for almost than 20 years between 1990 and 2009, a higher percentage than 1/3 of the doc stamp was going into these programs. Unfortunately, since 2010 the Legislature and Governors have nearly zero-funded the State's land conservation spending, which is one reason local governments have to step up.     

17.  Will anybody be forced to sell their land?

These funds cannot be used to buy land against the will of the seller for parks, fire stations, or economic development projects.  And since the road portion is only for existing roads, eminent domain will not be needed.  There are over 25,000 acres of land that have willing sellers and have already been evaluated as priorities for water quality and wildlife habitat protection. If at some point there is an interest in selling any land, it must be evaluated against these criteria and compete well against other projects in a public review process to become eligible for purchase.

 

18. Why isn’t there just a list of exactly which lands would be purchased?   

Land buying programs don’t typically list the exact properties they wish to purchase in advance, as that drives the price of the real estate up and makes it more difficult to purchase.  Instead, there is a one-page nomination form followed by a detailed site analysis and a ranking against other projects.  Once a project is listed then the owner can negotiate to sell at a fair price, but they know that there are many other eligible properties also available.

19. Of the 50% of funding going to parks and land, how much is going to land and how much to recreation and parks?   

It will be close to a 50/50 split.  With only a few project-specific exceptions, the nine municipalities are proposing that most of their funds toward active recreation, parks and cultural facilities; together they get almost half the funds.  The county has listed numerous recreation projects as well.   In the 2016 authorization, Alachua County designated that 90% of its funding go toward land conservation and 10% go toward parks.  The County is currently undergoing a Recreation Master Planning process, and will reassess the recreation funding needs once that is complete. There are many opportunities for matching funds from the State of Florida (Florida Forever, Florida Communities Trust, Historic Preservation Grants) and federal sources (Land and Water Conservation Fund and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act). 

20. Why a sales tax?

 A lot of our sales tax is paid for by people who don’t live in Alachua County.  Between our status as a regional shopping hub, UF sports and events, Gatornationals, people driving through on the interstate, a large portion of our sales tax is paid by out of county shoppers.  

The base 6% state sales tax is allocated not on actual spending, but on population of the local government.  So, our community doesn’t get the benefit of all of this out of county shopping from a tax perspective UNLESS we levy a local option sales tax.  If we have a local option sales tax, then ALL that revenue comes back to Alachua County and its cities.

21. How many other counties have a local option sales tax?

Of the state’s 67 counties, 66 (all but Citrus) have at least one local option sales tax. Currently Alachua County has a 1/2 cent dedicated to Wild Spaces and Public Places and 1/2 cent dedicated to school capital projects.  If the November 8, 2022 Wild Spaces and Public Places renewal occurs, the new levy will be for 1 cent, meaning the total local option levy will be 1.5%, taking the total sales tax to 7.5%.

22. Shouldn’t ALL this money be going to roads instead

Alachua County does have a substantial need for road repair and safety improvements, estimated at over $400 million on county-maintained facilities. However, voters rejected local option sales taxes for roads alone in 2004, 2012 and 2014.  Alachua County has made progress in recent years by repaving NW 16th Avenue, Tower Road, NW 43rdStreet and County Road 236 near High Springs. The new funding for roads is very much needed in all of the cities and the county, but our communities will be stronger if we work on roads, parks, natural lands, fire stations, and affordable housing concurrently.

23. Why isn’t this funding going to schools?

In 2016 voters approved the One Mill for Schools, which funds critical operating programs.  Voters also authorized in 2018 a half cent sales tax to fund school construction and renovation.   The School Board recently re-opened Howard Bishop Middle School, opened a new westside elementary school, and is currently renovating Westwood Middle School and others.  

24. How will the affordable housing funds be used?

Typical affordable housing programs provide rental subsidies or down-payment assistance. These are not allowable under the purpose and regulations of an infrastructure surtax.  What is allowed is the purchase of land that affordable housing can be built on, or the purchase of real estate such as apartment complexes or old motels, that can be converted into affordable housing.  Alachua County voters already established an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and if this passes, the funds will be used to create actual affordable housing in cooperation with housing authorities and community land trusts. 

25.  How do we know the funds will be spent properly?

Each year, the expenditures from the WSPP fund undergo an independent audit that looks at the legally allowed purposes (from the Florida Statutes), as well as the intended purposes as spelled out in the ballot summary and ordinance that provides additional details. These audit results are a public record, are discussed in a public meeting by the County's Auditor, and in the decades of similar programs, have always been properly spent. 

26.  How does the Citizen's Oversight mentioned in the ballot language work?

The Local Government Infrastructure Surtax Citizens Oversight Board are volunteers who meet frequently to look over the expenditures of the Wild Spaces - Public Places programs by the county and the municipalities. In particular, they look at the promises made to the voters, the process for choosing projects, and the outcomes, including whether they think the expenditures were reasonable. If they find issues, they request the local government involved provide more information, and sometimes request that they address a concern. All of the committee meetings are open to the public, their meeting minutes are a public record, and their diligence has helped assure skeptics that the programs are being well managed. 

https://advisoryboards.alachuacounty.us/boards/info.aspx

 

27. Where can I get a lot more information online?

https://www.wildspacespublicplaces.org/

https://alachuacounty.us/Depts/LandConservation/wspp/Pages/WildSpacesPublicPlaces.aspx

https://www.gainesvillefl.gov/Government-Pages/Government/Departments/Wild-Spaces-Public-Places

https://www.gainesville.com/story/opinion/2022/05/30/charlie-houder-benefits-alachua-county-florida-wild-spaces/9928559002/

https://www.facebook.com/WildSpacesPublicPlaces