The Alachua County Commission voted 5-0 Tuesday to approve a spending plan worth millions for funding conservation and parks across the county.
The money comes from a new surtax passed Nov. 8 by a citizen vote. It adds a full cent sales tax county-wide: One half of every cent is dedicated to acquire and improve conservation lands, and the other half is dedicated to public infrastructure spending. The meeting was meant to organize spending for the conservation part of the surtax.
The plan distributes $151 million to conservation efforts and $38 million to the construction and maintenance of parks over a 10-year period. That amounts to $15 million to conservation and $3.8 million to parks yearly.
The plan splits the funding 80% for conservation and 20% for parks. This allocates more money to parks than the original plan did.
Commissioner Ken Cornell proposed a motion to allocate more to the parks and found support from Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler.
When people voted for the surtax, they were voting for accessible conservation land, Wheeler said.
“People don’t want to stomp around through mud and snakes,” she said. “There have to be some parks that are more people-friendly.”
However, conservation takes priority for Commissioner Anna Prizzia. There are other ways to fund public parks, but the sole way to fund buying land for conservation is through the surtax. The majority of the money should go there, she said.
The surtax that went into place Jan. 1 could generate almost $188 million for the environment over the course of the 10 years it's in place, according to the city of Gainesville.
“There aren’t many commissions that get handed a big bucket of money like this,” Prizzia said. “I think we have a real responsibility to manage that money and think about the ways in which we leverage it to its greatest extent.”
Commissioner Mary Alford agreed. It’s important to buy that land for conservation now rather than later due to rising property prices, she said.
The Alachua Wild Spaces and Public Places department has a goal to conserve 50% of all land countywide by 2050, Alachua County environmental manager Andi Christman said in a presentation to the commission. Originally, the plan was 30% by 2030, but the office has upped the percentage due to climate change threats.
Currently, 23% of land in the county is preserved by the government. It would take $197 million to reach the 50% goal by 2050, Christman said. The majority of preservation efforts would be focused on wetlands on the east side of the county and also on other places with endangered species.
“That 30% target is not enough to get us where we need to be for the future of our citizens and all the species that live on the planet,” Christman said.
Kristin Caborn, senior planning manager for GAI Consulting presented a plan for 12 new parks that would require around $88 million over the next 10 years. GAI Consulting specializes in environmental planning for governments and other local entities. The county asked it to create a parks plan during early 2022 with the surtax in mind.
However, the commission still decided to approve the spending plan focusing on conservation instead.
Cornell has asked for another assessment of what can be done for parks with the $38 million, which will be discussed at the next county commission meeting Feb. 14. He’s confident the county will be able to get the rest of the money in grants, he said.
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Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat.