Hurricane Irma proved that we have an incredible community and the overall response to this storm by county and city employees, our first responders, the School Board, state and federal agencies, and so many other governmental partners and volunteers was unprecedented. It is now time to undertake a careful process of reviewing and improving our preparedness for the future. To that end, at our recent town hall meeting, we took note of the many legacy issues related to flooding, public safety and infrastructure maintenance. The current fiscal year 2018 budget will begin to address these issues.
It is often noted and undoubtedly true that adopting the budget is the most important task undertaken by the Alachua County Commission. The budget process reflects the priorities communicated by our citizens. As your chair, I want to take this opportunity to share just a few of this year’s highlights.
Once again, this budget demonstrated the commission’s dedication to public safety, to increased spending for road maintenance, to investment in the developmental needs of prenatal to 5 years old, and to the importance of local job creation.
While focusing on these and other priorities, I am pleased to report that for the first time in over a decade, the largest part of your county tax bill, paid by all county residents, the countywide millage rate, was decreased by over 5 percent from 8.9290 mills to 8.4648 mills.
The commission continues to budget over half of all general fund dollars for public safety. Public safety includes the sheriff, the jail, fire/rescue, the combined communications center and court services. We worked collaboratively with the sheriff to arrive at an agreement that was unanimously approved by the commission.
This approach will be important in the coming years, particularly as the hurricane exposed many of the public safety infrastructure shortfalls that have been deferred over the last decade. Some of these areas that require immediate attention include the purchase of a new countywide radio communications system, emergency operations center technology upgrades, adding a jail backup generator, and updating other equipment and facilities utilized daily by our first responders.
Earlier in the year, the commission was compelled to act on the implementation of the Countywide Fire Master Plan. During the last few months we have opened two new stations, and in FY18 we have budgeted for an additional station in the Millhopper area. Also, to reduce critical transport response times, we added another “peak load” ambulance. In the coming year, we plan to add additional fire/rescue resources in accordance with the master plan, and the county will continue the “closest available unit response” protocol with all of the municipalities.
We are one of just a few counties in the state without a local option infrastructure sales tax, which results in our reliance on the gas tax and general fund to address road maintenance. For the third consecutive year, the commission has focused on fixing our roads and has increased the general fund contribution for road maintenance. Our largest and most important project in FY18 will be the long-awaited repaving of Tower Road. In addition, this year we have implemented a modest stormwater assessment to begin handling the backlog ditch, drain and culvert maintenance needs that were so evident during the storm-related flooding.
For the second year in a row, we have funded the Children’s Services Advisory Council. We are very excited to begin programs that will focus on early childhood development from prenatal to 5 years old. During this most critical time for brain and personality development, it is essential to help our children build a strong foundation to becoming solid and productive citizens. This investment will yield the long-term benefit of substantially impacting the trajectory of our community.
Local jobs continue to be one of our highest priorities. The commission is committed to paying a living wage to our lowest paid employees and employees of contractors that choose to do business with the county. The majority of every additional dollar paid to these individuals that serve the public is reinvested locally, which continues to help stimulate Alachua County’s economy and create jobs.
Finally, as my first time serving as the chair comes to an end, I am impressed by both the effort and insights of my fellow commissioners and our talented and devoted staff. Many of these individuals have chosen public service as their life’s work and are continually engaged with our citizens to improve this community. It is my honor to serve you all and to share this year’s budget highlights.
Ken Cornell is chairman of the Alachua County Commission.