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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Is a new Florida county likely? Here's Springs County explained

If residents successfully secede, Springs County could be the first new Florida county in almost 100 years

Photo of the the welcome center sign for proposed Springs County. The county would incorporate Newberry, High Springs, Alachua, Archer and Lacrosse in its territory.
Photo of the the welcome center sign for proposed Springs County. The county would incorporate Newberry, High Springs, Alachua, Archer and Lacrosse in its territory.

Some Alachua County residents have a plan to resolve differences over ongoing issues like mask mandates and GRU rates. After six years of discussion surrounding a new county split from Alachua County, there are still many unanswered questions. 

The new county –– Springs County –– would incorporate Newberry, High Springs, Alachua, Archer, LaCrosse and parts of Gainesville in its territory. The proposed eastern boundary is 34th Street, enveloping the city’s booming west side and knocking on UF’s doorstep.

A petition supporting the split that started seven months ago reached its goal of 7,500 online signatures in February, with 1,000 more hard copy signatures. 

If residents successfully secede, Springs would form the first new Florida county in almost 100 years. The last time it happened was in 1925, when Gilchrist County split from Alachua. 

However, some local officials, lawyers and residents aren’t convinced the plan is practical. Because it’s been almost a century since the state created a new county, the legal process lacks a modern example to follow. Unanswered questions about taxes, infrastructure and school districts strain the feasibility of a successful Springs County secession.

The county’s goals center around smaller government, lower taxes and fewer social programs, according to its website. In December, about 100 Alachua County residents gathered in High Springs for the opening of The Springs County welcome center. Supporters cited “wasteful spending,” high GRU bills and neglect of cities other than Gainesville as the driving force behind the movement for a new county. 

Legislative Process

Where or if a county line is drawn is up to the discretion of the Florida Legislature, which is made up of the Florida House and Senate, said Joseph Little, a UF local government law professor.

“If [the legislature] wished to, it could bundle up counties,” he said. “It's got the authority to do what it wants to do. It’s the lawmaking process, there's nothing peculiar about that.”

However, Little said there is more to consider in this process than there was when Gilchrist County was founded in 1925. Denser populations, bigger government reach and school districts raise questions that Springs County leaders have yet to answer.

The last movement for a new state county occurred in 1993, when upset residents of cities in Duval County, such as Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach, pushed for a split.

Much like Springs County’s namesake, a homage to north Florida’s freshwater springs, the proposed coastal county adopted the name Ocean County.

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But in 1995, Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney was elected. With a resident and former mayor of Neptune Beach in office, citizens' support for Ocean County dried up, and it did not get enough traction to be voted on in the state legislature.

It would be unlikely for the Florida Legislature to approve Springs County without a vote from Alachua County residents, Little said.

At the welcome center opening in December, State Rep. Chuck Clemons pledged to propose a bill in August to do just that.

Clemons did not respond to multiple emails and phone call requests for comment.

Springs County supporters tout Clemons’ pledge as a milestone, but Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said they aren’t reading the fine print. 

The vote would measure support of the new county, but is not required to create one, which is done through a majority vote by the state legislature, Marlowe said. It is not up to the people.

One of the biggest factors in Springs County’s viability is the question of whether it can support itself financially, he said.

Gilchrist County, the last state county to be created, is labeled “fiscally constrained” by the Florida Legislature. This means that its tax base can’t support its spending and is bailed out by the state.

If Springs County splits Alachua County and the city of Gainesville along 34th Street, there is a possibility that both counties may become fiscally constrained, Marlowe added.

“There's no way Tallahassee is going to say yes to that,” he said, “Because that means that now they have to subsidize two counties — right now, Alachua County pays for itself.”

Marlowe said there are many questions about taxes an accountant would need to answer to find out if the new county could financially support itself.

“Until we can answer those questions, it's really impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Springs County,” Marlowe said. “Because you're not talking about anything.”

Alachua County spokesman Mark Sexton said the commission hasn’t spent much time discussing Springs County, adding that no city commissions have moved to join the county.

“There's not a single small city in the rural areas of the county that have made a motion to support Springs County,” he said.

Sexton said Springs County is the minority view of a few thousand people in a county of 260,000.

“But the solution to that is not for every county in the United States to break off and let their minority party constituents form their own county,” he said. “The solution in the United States and in our republic, is you do the hard work, and you convince voters.”

He said the county has been busy navigating the pandemic with a mass vaccination effort underway.

“The county commission has a lot of serious business in front of them,” Sexton said. “And, you know, Springs County has not risen to the top of the priority list.”

“A Political Divorce”

Renewed interest in separating from Alachua County came when the county commission flipped its decision to rescind the mask mandate after receiving pressure from the Gainesville City Commission, Tim Marden, the face of the Springs County movement and Newberry city commissioner, said. 

“It was pretty much the straw that broke the camel's back,” Marden said.

The largest factor in support of a new county is the feeling that the Gainesville and Alachua County commissions are leaving other cities out of discussions, Marden said.

He said the Gainesville city commission’s mention of shutting down bars and restaurants influenced the county’s discussion of closing down those businesses

Marden is a National Development Officer for The John Birch Society, a fringe, right-wing organization that was expunged from the political mainstream in the 1960s. This is an affiliation he has publicly defended.

He rejected the idea that the new county would have to build everything from scratch, explaining that roads, power poles and sewage systems would all be annexed by the new county.

Debts and assets alike within the proposed borders would belong to Springs County.

“All the assets are divided up just like a divorced couple,” Marden said. “I've been calling this a political divorce.”

The ultimate goal of Springs County is to create less friction in government, Marden said, adding that government expenses and taxes create this friction. The county government will focus on what he calls core government, including roads, public safety, utilities and courts. 

“And that's what pits people against each other,” he said. “It doesn't need to be that way.” 

Splitting Up Gainesville

One of the largest hurdles for Springs County concerns its would-be border of 34th Street, which would divide Gainesville into two counties. 

Littlewood Elementary School sits on the east side of 34th Street. Across from the school is Westwood Middle. Under Springs County’s proposed borders, the sister schools would belong to two different school districts.

While there is some support for Springs County in west Gainesville, Marden said this is where the movement’s efforts have received the most pushback. Kansas City and Memphis are examples of cities belonging to multiple counties and states; Gainesville could easily do the same, he added.

But Todd Hornberger, a 53-year-old Gainesville resident and supporter of Springs County, believes drawing the line at 34th Street is unrealistic.

“It's just too close, it's just too too much in the heart,” he said. “You'd be cutting Gainesville right down the center.”

Instead, he said the line should run farther west along Parker Road located in the city outskirts.

Hornberger, who’s lived in the city for more than 50 years, said he’s in the fight for Springs County for the same reasons as many other supporters –– high GRU utility bills and Alachua County’s focus on social programs rather than core government issues.

He said the county’s wasteful spending on community projects and GRU’s hybrid cars while kicking the can on important ones like roads and infrastructure are his biggest complaints and it should listen to its people.

Springs County would have five commissioners on its board, representing Newberry, High Springs, Alachua, Archer and LaCrosse — cities within the borders.

“You're going to steal Alachua out of Alachua County?” Hornberger said. “Yeah, right.”

Contact Jack Prator at jprator@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @jack_prator.

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Jack Prator

Jack is a UF journalism sophomore covering the Gainesville City Commission. If he's not in a hammock at the plaza he is probably watching the Queen's Gambit for the fifth time. 


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