BY JENNIFER CABRERA/ SEPTEMBER 14, 2019
As the City Commission meeting on September 12 moved on to an ordinance that raised 19 different classifications of city fees, Nathan Skop spoke in response to the speeches that Commissioner Warren and Mayor Poe had given while discussing the GRU rates: “You told a lie to a lot of people in this room. And people left because they were appalled at the excuse-making… But you told a blatant lie just a second ago, and I’m going to direct that to you… because you’re accountable for your actions. What you neglected to admit during your praising yourself, you approved the biomass contract, you neglected to state that. That caused a lot of hardship. But secondly, you said that you did everything possible to help cut GRU rates. GRU has been forced to cut its budget, year after year after year, to the detriment of GRU because the city commission mismanages the utility. You refused to cut the general fund transfer by $6 million, which would instantly reduce upward rate pressure on electric rates. So don’t sit there and lecture me, as a former state utility regulator, and everyone in this room and make up nonsensical excuses that aren’t supported by evidentiary basis of fact. It’s disingenuous. To this point, we wouldn’t have to raise fees, we wouldn’t have to raise taxes, we wouldn’t have to raise utility rates if this city commission was fiscally responsible. Tell me, instead of expanding government by all of these jobs, what have you cut out of the city budget? Tell me one thing you’ve cut. Crickets. Silence. Because you’ve expanded the budget because you’re fiscally irresponsible. And again, you can say it’s not important, but I think it’s important to everyone in this room that are struggling to pay their electric rates and all of these fees and taxes. Bottom line, you continue to eat catered meals at taxpayer expense, you travel all over the place on taxpayer-funded junkets and have the audacity to brag about it, including Honolulu. We just heard about Durham. I’m glad y’all like to travel. What an example that sets. Leadership starts at the top of every organization, Mayor Poe, but y’all don’t have real-world jobs so y’all really wouldn’t understand that. You haven’t worked for Fortune 500 companies.”
“I don’t know how we could have been fooled to vote with you, and you’re doing this to us today.”
Evelyn Foxx came back up: “I was about to leave because I do have to go to church, and I have to go even more so now after you all — after this vote. I am so dismayed. I remember last year, just before the election, I stood right out there on the steps of this City Hall and… did not support the GRU initiative on where they wanted to turn it over or put—do something with it other than the citizens keeping it in Alachua County. We convinced the Alachua County branch of the NAACP to support our elected officials here. And here I stand today and listen to the same people that I stood with outside, saying that there won’t be any rate increase, at least at the magnitude of what I’m seeing here. And then we get the lecture about—Commissioner Warren, you have to decide if you want to go to the Saturday night dance. You said something like that. I am so hurt that people are calling me now saying, Evelyn, you convinced us to vote with you on that initiative. And they promised there would not be a rate increase. And less than a year later, look what we’re going through. But, you know, I just had to say that. But I’m going to church tonight, and I’m going to pray for all of you, and I’m going to pray for all of the citizens of Gainesville who are catching hell, trying to survive. Like I said earlier, $5 may not matter to you, but we have seniors getting $843 a month from their Social Security, and over half of that amount goes to the GRU bill. They don’t turn their air conditioners on. They have fans. They sit under the tree where it’s hotter to me, just to try to keep their utility bills—please. I don’t know what’s wrong. And I don’t know how we could have been fooled to vote with you, and you’re doing this to us today. When you asked us to support you, and we did all of the investigating, and we thought that we needed to keep everything here because we have elected officials that we could talk to—and I could talk to all of you, one on one. But when you sit up here today and vote against everything that the citizens that I went door to door and asked to vote to support our city commission, I don’t know what to say. I am disappointed and I am very hurt.”
“I can remember little old ladies having to sit outside their house, sucking on popsicles, because it’s cooler outside than it is inside the house with their air conditioner turned off.”
Debbie Martinez: “Again, it’s never too late to do the right thing and it’s more than just voting no… You can cut your budget. And to hear any member say ‘Well, why even bother because if we cut our budget, there will still be people who have trouble paying their GRU bill’… Because you’re helping some. It’s just like any prevention policy. Why do you have to be 21 years old to buy alcohol? It’s a prevention policy. You’re not going to end alcoholism. You’re not going to end alcohol abuse, but you’re going to reduce it dramatically. And that’s all that we’re asking you to do. I want many of the same things you want. But we, especially the lower-income people, can’t afford them. That’s all we’re saying is—wait, don’t try to—GRU is up to their eyeballs in debt. You don’t go on European vacations, you know, when you’re up to your eyeballs in debt. You’ve maxed out your credit card. You stop spending. You look and say, okay, where can I cut. Because these are people… I’m sure Commissioner Gigi Simmons will know this. Not only are they not having air conditioning, I can remember little old ladies having to sit outside their house, sucking on popsicles, because it’s cooler outside than it is inside the house with their air conditioner turned off. These are real people… I’m the eternal optimist and I just hope that you will not do this.”
Mayor Poe reminded the speakers that the ordinance then under consideration was for a schedule of fees, rates, and charges for general government.
“You don’t care about the tenants, you don’t care about the citizens, you don’t care about the rate payers. You have 1200, 1300 disconnects a month”
Jim Konish: “I know what the ordinance says, and I always make a point of speaking to the motion. I want to discuss two of the fees that you’ll be raising: that’s the garbage cart, the minimum 18-gallon garbage cart will be $18.50, a rise from $17.50, and the stormwater for GRU will go from, I believe it’s $9.50, to $9.90. Here’s the problem, sir. As you well know, these two fees are bundled in with the electric meter. And that means that, in effect, this increases the customer charge for your electricity up to about $50. This is a cost shift from the landlord to the tenant, which is feeding into the disconnections. The county collects these fees on the tax bill. I am a landlord. I am very profitable. I’m happy to pay these fees for my tenants. However, the big corporate landlords, with thousands of units, don’t want to bear this expense. So because you have this sort of back-room relationship with them, you put the fees on the tenants while you’re purporting to care about the tenants. And this really unmasks what’s going on here. You don’t care about the tenants, you don’t care about the citizens, you don’t care about the rate payers. You have 1200, 1300 disconnects a month. All you have to do is move this over to the tax bill, not get hosed $600,000 by GRU to collect this money. Whenever you turn the meter off, you don’t even collect the money; you lose the money. You can’t keep up with annexations. You’re just throwing money away because you want to take care of Collier and people like that and put it on tenants that are being disconnected by the thousands. This shows everybody what your priorities are. Not only do you have the highest rates in the state, you pile them on a bundle that is in the outer limits of legality and that’s cruel and vicious. This reveals who you are and who you serve. And by the way, the county commission is going to take a look at this. Because I don’t think they’re very comfortable with it. And by ordinance, just like they can prohibit conversion therapy, they can prohibit this abusive billing practice by the city of Gainesville, in concert with Mr. Bielarski, who would love to change this but knows he can’t. This is wrong. This is unjust. This needs to stop right now.”
“It is profoundly disrespectful to propose that when we come and speak here about why these rate increases are unethical, are cruel to the people in the city, that we are not here to bring solutions.”
Lizzy <inaudible>: “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak. I just wanted to say one thing, and I want to say it as calmly as I can muster myself to do so. Directly, I wanted to speak on the notion that we need to come here with solutions, and I want to talk on why this is a—I receive this as a profoundly disrespectful statement and a statement that I would say to be profoundly gas-lighting. What do I mean by the term gas-lighting? To claim that something… that we are trying to do, that we are not trying to do. You all are the literal gatekeepers of many of the solutions that are possible here. and the reason why we’re here tonight, taking our time and our energy, people taking time out of their jobs, their lives, their ability to do other things that would be useful for their time, is because we are asking you to be part of the solution as the gatekeepers for what we do in this city. It is profoundly disrespectful to propose that when we come and speak here about why these rate increases are unethical, are cruel to the people in the city, that we are not here to bring solutions. There have been many proposed instances by people who have come up and spoken for suggestions of what could concretely be done. Please do not—I’m asking you, please do not disrespect the people of the city by proposing that we are not interested in solutions when y’all are the literal gatekeepers to helping find the solutions.”
“If you’re going to say that you care about these racial inequities and you care about these inequities but still vote on the same bill the people literally begged you not to, I think that stands clear.”
Kristen Torres: “I honestly just wanted to speak on the appalling way that everything was handled… I just think it’s kind of contradicting, as people who lead the city, to say that you care, but then to say… your problems are spilled milk. There hasn’t been a lot of consistency that I’ve seen tonight. Even with having a commissioner say ‘Why are people leaving?’ when commissioners come in and out as well. This is my first time speaking. I just want to say, just watching how you handle things, it’s just very disingenuous. The people have literally gotten on their knees and begged for y’all to listen. It’s their pockets, it’s their home, it’s their mortgage, it’s their bills. Why would we be here right now if it wasn’t serious?… And I think it’s bigger than just making jobs. There are no jobs. There’s more than just raising the minimum wage. That’s a great idea, but I think we can start with housing. Also, public safety is not just firemen and police officers. Housing is safety. Education is safety. Those are gate keys to get to better places. And if you’re not giving your all to communities who are not getting the same amount of advantages, you’re lying to the people. That’s just how I’m taking it. With all due respect, if you’re going to say that you care about these racial inequities and you care about these inequities but still vote on the same bill the people literally begged you not to, I think that stands clear.”
The motion passed with the same vote, 4-2, with Commissioner Ward and Commissioner Simmons voting against it and Commissioner Arreola absent. The commission will take a final vote on the various budget bills on September 26.