It was almost the race that never was.
A year ago, incumbent Leveda Brown had no intention of running again for the Alachua County Commission District 4 seat -- a move that would have likely kept political newcomer Holly Jensen on the sidelines since she entered the race at the last minute specifically to block Brown's quest for a fourth term.
Brown represents government experience as the current dean of commissioners. Jensen touts herself as the outsider more in tune with public sentiment. Brown has a well-financed campaign machine, raising nearly 10 times more money than Jensen, who switched to the Republican Party so the race would be decided in the Nov. 8 general election.
Brown has strong ties to the development community while Jensen has long fought for natural preservation. Despite their differences, they both portray themselves as fiscal conservatives eager to trim the county budget and keep a lid on taxes.
Brown reconsidered running after witnessing a new level of cooperation among local leaders. "What I've seen is a transition. The '80s were full of divisiveness. You just couldn't get anything done," she said.
"But for the last year, I've been thrilled to see more consensus. I really think the community is ready to deal with its problems."
Besides ousting Brown, one of Jensen's primary motivations for running is her fear that Alachua County will become another South Florida.
"I'm afraid we're going to end up like South Florida, which has tremendous, unsolvable problems. It makes sense to learn from that experience rather than repeat it. While Alachua County has remained a very desirable place to live, the character of the county is rapidly changing," she said, pointing to greater traffic and declining environmental quality.
She repeatedly sees instances of development planned for remote areas away from existing roads and schools, such as a 150-unit housing development planned near Kanapaha Prairie, where Jensen owns property. "Even if this kind of leapfrog development had to pay its own way, it couldn't," she said. "We're not saying no growth, just smart growth."
Brown looks to address the high rate of poverty among Alachua County residents if re-elected. Particularly distressing to Brown is that the number of local children qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches is rising, not dropping.
To create more area jobs, she supports the ongoing efforts of the Council for Economic Outreach and an increased commitment to fostering economic development in eastern Alachua County. She suggests investing more in roads and utilities to attract new business there. Waiting for the private sector to show up first will net nothing, Brown said.
Jensen said county funds spent by CEO could be better used as direct incentives to new business. "The commission could tie new business development to job training. We could provide financial assistance to companies that will train existing residents," she explained.
Both candidates attribute much of this area's high crime rate to the lack of good-paying jobs. However, Jensen feels county government has ignored one factor in area crime -- the number of prisons encircling Alachua County.
She advocates pushing state officials to send more released prisoners back to their hometown instead of dumping them in this area. "Dade County criminals need to go back to Dade County. We have enough of our own to deal with," said Jensen, who sees victims of violent crime firsthand as a nurse at Alachua General Hospital.
Brown and Jensen share the belief that new growth should pay its own way. But they differ on the future of impact fees, which developers, businesses and homeowners pay to offset the cost of road improvements.
Brown was a big supporter of impact fees initially but now feels they restrict much-needed business growth. "It took me two years before I realized they're not working. Impact fees work well in faster-growing communities down south but not here," Brown said.
In their place, Brown suggests setting aside a portion of county tax revenue generated by newly developed property toward the road improvement fund. If that revenue falls short of what impact fees brought in, she said, cuts can be made across the board in county government.
"I really think county government needs to stick to the basics," said Brown, who's served since 1982.
Jensen favors modifying the existing impact fees so that those creating the most need for infrastructure also pay the most. She applies a similar approach to Alachua County's garbage collection, arguing that residents need stronger economic incentives to produce less waste.
"Right now, citizens are not paying the real cost of creating their waste. We need to set up incentives to reward behavior for the public good."
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