The Marion County Board of County Commissioners (MCBOCC) and officials from Marion County Public Schools (MCPS), along with all municipalities inside the county, participated in a joint workshop on Monday, Nov. 8, at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion conference room.
The last time there was a local, intragovernmental meeting of this kind was in 2015.
The range topics discussed were included population growth forecasts, how it will impact transportation needs, and a plan to work with an outside consultant on ways to grow the county’s communication infrastructure.
According to an email from Stacie Causey, a spokesperson for Marion County, “The joint workshop sessions were designed to be opportunities for the parties to hear reports, discuss policy, set direction, and reach understandings concerning issues of mutual concern regarding school concurrency, coordination of land use, and school facilities planning, including population and student growth, development trends, school needs, off-site improvements, and joint-use opportunities.”
Marion County’s Growth Services Director Mary Elizabeth Burgess presented to the group where she reported the county’s population, according to 2020 Census data, had increased by 10.3% since 2010.
As a result of the growth, 27,000 new residential units had been permitted or were pending permits in the last 5 years.
David Herlihy, the Planning & Governmental Relations Manager for Marion County Public Schools, also briefed the group. Herlihy said despite the growth in the county, student enrollment has been trending downward, and as a result, he expects a low enrollment growth in Marion County schools in the future.
He said he believed MCPS would see between 50-350 student enrollments per year in the upcoming years and will continue to deal with localized overcrowding at certain county elementary, middle, and high schools.
Additionally, Herlihy was the impetus for the meeting, according to Causey.
“David Herlihy reached out to Marion County administration because he knew this meeting was originally delayed [due to COVID]. Herlihy also knew the county’s new growth services director was not present at the previous meeting,” said Causey in a statement.
The group also heard from Rob Balmes, the Ocala Marion Transportation Planning Organization director. Balmes highlighted the county’s commitment to preventing accidents on local roadways despite the continued growth.
Discussion on the topic turned to bus stops. Commissioner Carl Zalak III pointed out that the county is limited on what it can do in certain areas.
“Our team can look at signs, we can look at a lot of things, but we can’t change a bus stop. But maybe y’all [MCPS] can,” said Zalak.
Zalak went on to propose the two sides work collaboratively to share information and ideas as it relates to bus stops.
School Board Chair Nancy Thrower agreed that there was a specific need for a partnership on this issue.
She referenced living in rural parts of the county during her time in Marion County and noted how dark the roads are in the mornings when kids are waiting for the bus.
She also alluded to a recent tragedy where a 10-year-old boy was killed while walking to his bus stop.
“Sadly, we experienced that [tragedy] this past week,” Thrower said. “Your suggestion could not be more timely.”
Thrower mentioned any collaboration on the topic should include the county’s bus drivers, as
“They’re the ones out running the routes. They’re the ones we need to hear from with their suggestions,” she said.
Additional areas covered during the workshop included the land that sits adjacent to Hillcrest, the county’s lone ESE-only school. Cheryl Martin, the Director of Marion County Community Services, gave some background on the approximately 7.5 acres adjacent to Hillcrest School.
The parcel was previously leased to Munroe Regional Medical Center (MRMC) for the Speech and Hearing Center. However, when the lease was amended, recognizing MRMC’s transition to AdventHealth, the lease boundaries were reduced to approximately 1.4 acres.
The remaining 6 acres are undeveloped and the county has secured a consultant to rezone the property from institutional to residential and has explored affordable housing options at the site.
Thrower expressed a desire for MCPS to be included in any discussions going forward and signaled the board would be open to multiple opportunities.
“Once we have a chance to discuss it as a board….outright purchase would be worthy of discussion, as well as other creative opportunities. Land swaps, you name it. That’s one of the beautiful things about what we’re doing today is coming together and looking for options that will be for the benefit of our county, and by extension, our kids,” Thrower said.
“We’re just gonna continue to have more dialogue on it moving forward,” said Zalak.
Assistant County Administrator of Public Services Angel Roussel presented information about the upcoming American Rescue Plan and assured both boards that communication infrastructure is on the radar for the county.
He further explained that the county currently has a request for proposal, and should have a contract in place by January with a consultant to do a feasibility study on the unserved and underserved areas in the county that need communication infrastructure.
At the end of the workshop, the two boards discussed updating the 2008 interlocal agreement between the agencies.