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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ Some 100 people gathered in High Springs on Dec. 6 to attend a ribbon cutting celebrating the opening of the new Springs County Welcome Center at 18725 N. Main Street. The facility will serve as the headquarters for a movement to separate much of western Alachua County into a new county.

According to Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden, the idea began years ago but has regained traction lately. This increased interest is due in part to the pandemic and controversy over the issue of whether the Alachua County Commission has the authority to set rules for municipalities, including mandating masks and business openings.

Marden described the movement as a “political divorce” and much of its origins is based on conservative ideology including less government influence in communities and individual lives and fewer restrictions on business, with greater influence of churches and conservative organizations.

The main concerns for supporters of Springs County include limiting the size of government and maintaining freedom for individuals and businesses. Core services such as roads, fire, law enforcement, utilities and courts would be the focus of the new county government, while some social services and charity support would become the responsibility of individuals, families, businesses, civic groups and churches.

Springs County supporters need state legislative approval to see their plan to fruition, but, according to Marden, state law doesn’t provide a specific process for how to create a new county.

So far, around 7,500 residents from around the county have signed petitions to support the movement. The Alachua County Commission has made no mention of the movement at its meetings and no governing body in the municipalities that would be included in Springs County have offered support for the plan. However, many of the outlying towns feel under represented by the Alachua County Commission.

Originally the Springs County movement called for the elimination of property taxes to be replaced by a 6 percent sales tax and a gas tax for improving roads, although details were sparse. Marden has changed his position on that matter, with complete elimination unlikely as some property taxes are set by the state to cover schools and other state organizations.

In addition, state statutes limit the amount of sales tax a county can institute. “It’s a learning process with revisions as we try to finalize the details,” Marden said. “Much as some people would like, it's not something that is going to happen instantly. It’s a complex issue that will take time to refine to make it workable. Rushing it could lead to failure.”

The group is currently working on a plan as to how the new county will be funded. “Our plan now is to establish a physical presence with this welcome center and be able to provide information and education to both the public and the legislature over the next year.”

State Representative Chuck Clemons spoke at the Welcome Center opening, and according to Marden, Clemons is willing to file legislature in 2021 to be considered for a 2022 referendum to be placed on the ballot for a vote by affected residents. “If it [referendum] passes, we will take the next three years to work out all the details and state requirements with an expected launch date of 2025,” said Marden. “That gives us three years to stand up the systems needed in place.”

Marden says that reasons for the creation of Springs County are similar to the those that prompted the formation of Gilchrist County when it separated from Alachua County in 1925 and become the state’s 67th county.

The Welcome Center will serve as a home for Springs County efforts moving into the next phases complete with presentation space and board room. The building has been donated to the Springs County movement by the owner, who is only charging for utilities to help them raise funds for the movement. The Welcome Center offers merchandise such as clothing, drink cups and other products featuring the Springs County logo to help raise funds to support the movement.

The space will also be available for other organizations to hold meetings and conferences. According to Marden, the Welcome Center is not only an educational venue, but also represents Springs County supporters as part of the community. The Welcome Center is located in High Springs at 18725 Main Street.

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