Helping Our Neighbor, Helping Ourselves
by Indivisible Gainesville member Julie Crosby
The Sun recently published a Washington Post article, “‘Dying City’ of Palatka Determined to Save Itself”. The article quoted a 2013 Florida League of Cities study that proclaimed Palatka, the county seat , to be Florida’s only “dying city” – meaning more of its citizens were moving out or dying than were being born or moving into the city. As one of those who left and moved to Gainesville twelve years ago, I believe this story has something to say to us in Alachua County as well as our neighbors in Putnam County about efforts we can take to help each other.
To take the true pulse of a place, you have to get close to its heart. I was born and lived nearly 40 years in Putnam County and I saw the challenges the county faces. One thing I know about the people is that they care less about the political party of their leaders than they do about the ability of those leaders to understand, care about, and solve local problems. However, I’ve come to believe that Palatka may not be able to overcome its problems–including economic woes, an aging infrastructure, health issues and educational shortfalls– unless Palatka forges stronger economic, community and governmental relationships with surrounding counties like Alachua and unless the area has strong representation in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. Unfortunately our mutual Congressional representative, Ted Yoho, hasn’t acknowledged his own responsibility in addressing the significant issues mentioned in the article, including one of the highest poverty rates in the state and the next to lowest graduation rate in the state. Instead, he passes the buck: “The Trump administration is just getting started,” he said in the Washington Post article. “It has taken a while for nominees to get approved, so it will just take some time.” A dying city can’t afford more time in a bureaucratic hospice.
Alachua County should care about the problems in Putnam County because we share not only a border and a congressional representative, but many of the same issues in several large pockets of our own county and city. Mutually beneficial solutions could raise the outlook for our entire region. For example, 43.2 percent of Palatka residents and 35.6 percent of Gainesville residents live in poverty according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. We all are impacted when our own citizens and neighbors lack proper medical care, transportation, education and other public services. Poverty creates a need for more public assistance, which is paid for by all of us.
An improved Putnam County economy would also benefit businesses in Alachua County. Since Putnam residents are interested in retaining the area’s natural beauty and not interested in excess development, residents will likely always need to seek out surrounding areas such as Gainesville for large-scale entertainment, specialized medicine and shopping.
Access to health care is a shared concern of low-income residents in both counties. Putnam County has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state. Some 78.4 percent of births in Putnam County are covered by Medicaid. In neighboring Alachua County, nearly one in five residents receives Medicaid or coverage under the Florida Children’s Health Insurance Program for low income children. But the federal proposed budget and the congressional health care fiasco fly in the face of reason by calling for reduced funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs, and in the case of the American Health Care Act, which Rep. Yoho voted for, cutting Medicaid drastically. It’s necessary to have healthy citizens in order to work toward a healthy, vital city and county that supports itself. How are the poor of Alachua and Putnam supposed to live healthy lives when from birth they might be faced with less access to medical care?
How can we work together to solve our mutual problems? First, with new business and economic development partnerships. The Washington Post article details a new entrepreneurial spirit in Palatka as well as strong efforts to introduce tourists and prospective new residents to the natural beauty of the surrounding river, lakes and forests. Alachua County has some wonderfully talented entrepreneurs who I believe could share what they’ve learned with Putnam County and help it grow. Gainesville has sister city relationships with far flung cities; why not a Gainesville-Palatka coalition for the Highway 20 corridor to bring some local products and services to a new customer base through businesses staffed by Palatkans in a revitalized riverfront area?
We can also join together in seeking solutions and leadership from Rep. Yoho. For example, Trump’s proposed federal budget calls for elimination of the Amtrak Silver Line which would mean closing the Palatka Amtrak station (also the closest station to Gainesville). We know the federal government isn’t paying attention to the fallout of that proposal – but we should expect Rep. Yoho to fight to keep it open.
Let’s partner with Putnam County to bring resources to low-income residents in both of our communities through mutual problem-solving, collaboration and focused communication with our shared representative. Despite differences in politics, we have much in common. It’s my hope that we extend a hand across the county line and learn how we might work together to ensure that our elected officials work for all of us as we likewise look for opportunities for growth and common good.