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Citizens beg the city commission to vote against raising GRU rates

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / SEPTEMBER 14, 2019

[Editor’s note: This article covers only the part of the September 12 Gainesville City Commission that was focused on GRU rates and fees. Many citizens came to the meeting, and most of them spoke on this agenda item because it was the first budget item. The comments were lengthy, so we’ll cover the rest of the meeting in another article.]

The budget item for GRU contained a large number of rates and fees, but the most important ones for citizens are the residential utility rates. As we described in a previous article, the first increase is to the Electric Customer Charge, the monthly fee paid by everyone who has an electric meter, even if there is no usage; that fee goes from $14.25 to $15 per month, an increase of 5.26%. The rate for “Energy Use, Tier 1 (0-850 kWh)” goes from 0.0702/kWh to 0.0745/kWh, a 6.13% increase. The rate for “Energy Use, Tier 2 (over 850 kWh)” goes from 0.0930/kWh to 0.0987/kWh, also a 6.13% increase. For a customer using 1000 kWh/month, that would be an increase of $5.94/month. The increases for gas, water, and wastewater were negligible. GRU stated in their presentation that the new fees represent a 2.3% increase in the bill for someone who uses a specific (industry standard) amount of services.

During the citizen comment period, Jim Konish spoke first: “You’re taking off from already the highest in the state. Key West is an eyelash above you, and you’re going to leave them in the dust, sir. The average municipal bill is 112, you’re going to 131. You’re 20 bucks above the average. You’re increasing everything, sir. And what’s most cruel about this is, the no-consumption GRU bill, factoring in the connection fees, goes to $85. And by the way, when you disconnect someone, and you do about 1200 or 1300 of those per month, we don’t know how many poor souls are behind these disconnecting meters, your fees are double for a disconnection than they are for a reconnection. Plus your deposits go up.  And then if it’s after hours, there’s a $112 surcharge… But what is more disturbing, sir, is your already bad outdoor lighting deal. Some of your inefficient fixtures are going up by as much as 62% for rental outdoor lighting, public street lighting, as much as 70%. And for all of your poles, many of which are rotten poles, the average increase is 45%… And if you look at your revenue projections on this, every single system is projected to have less revenue this year than last year. Every single one… you’re not going to get a 6.4% revenue increase. Your revenues are going to go down because you, sir, are in a death spiral. And that’s why it’s time for the voters to be asked the correct question. Is it time to sell the GRU electric utility off so we can have our bills cut in half? And I gave the school board, who gives up $5.8 million a year and the county commission $3.3 million a year, a side-by-side comparison of your rates and FPL rates by class. And, sir, you’ve been left in the dust.”

“An increase in property tax impacts the poorest neighborhoods.”

Sheila Payne spoke next: “And my comments about the GRU part are at the bottom. It’s all about the budget. So I’m here to support the work of the city commission. I’ve been working on safe and healthy housing rental property. Part of it goes to look for a rental housing advocate. Next year the license fees. The whole rental housing program — check out the story yesterday on WUFT where students and parents were talking about how shocked they were with living conditions, including some of their new, just-built apartments, moisture, mold and filth were cited. On my neighborhood listserve, there’s talk about how an increase in property tax impacts the poorest neighborhoods. Rents are going up 8% to 15% every year, whether there are increases of cost to landlords and whether or not the property has been maintained or upgraded. Market rate. Landlords do not have to increase their rents every year. They just can, so they do.

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“I support the living wage the city of Gainesville implemented. If everyone made a living wage, maybe they could buy a house instead of renting. The way out of poverty is not just education. Adjuncts can tell you that. It is to make a living wage and build wealth for generations with home ownership. … There’s parts of the budget I would cut. I’ll let y’all know. Remodeling city hall, updating technology. These are my own biases… I came because I might be one of the few people, I appreciate the work you do. I know you all don’t even make a living wage from the amount of hours and the number of meetings that you go to. And what are you going to do when so much of property is off of the tax roll.”

“I do not want to see another person having to go without air conditioning.”

Debbie Martinez: “Every single month, many people live in total fear waiting for their GRU bills to arrive. It never used to be this way until city commissioners gambled with our money on a multibillion dollar biomass project and lost. GRU bills went sky-high, devastating the lives of lower-income people, creating more poverty. It is never too late to do the right thing and vote no on another aggressive GRU rate hike. You do not have to create more poverty. Cut your bloated budget. I do not want to see another person having to go without air conditioning. Left to live in mold-infested homes because they cannot afford to pay for your costly biomass power. This has nothing — absolutely nothing to do with leaky buildings or bad landlords. It’s about your overspending, trying to hide it and wanting to silence citizens. If you really want to help lower-income people and prevent more poverty, just vote no on raising GRU rates tonight.”

“This is like we’re going backwards”

The next citizen to speak didn’t identify herself: “There are a lot of people that live in the city of Gainesville, who live in vulnerable neighborhoods, who will be devastated by this GRU hike. I am a property manager on a low-to-moderate-income property. And some of their light bills are more than half of their rent. They just can’t afford it. I can’t afford it. So I know what it feels like. I can’t afford it. I’ve come to city commission meetings over the years and I have heard conversations about affordable housing, economic disparities, equity, crime, and now we’re here. This is like we’re going backwards… So I ask you to please just try to understand what we go through every day, what it’s like to come home with your children and you don’t know if your lights is on. What it’s like to come home with your children and you don’t know if you got an eviction notice on your door. I, for once, for one time just really take in consideration of the huge population in the city of Gainesville who are living below and on the poverty line who this will most definitely, most definitely just devastate their whole world. We are tired of these high GRU bills. It’s just not a good thing. So I really ask you to think about what I just said, because that’s real.”

“Could lead to an exodus of jobs that are already here”

Paul Clayton spoke next: “These proposals to significantly increase our property taxes, the Fire Assessment Fees and the GRU utility rates are distressing. The city of Gainesville has shown itself to be somewhat irresponsible with our money, whether it’s monitoring of employee credit card use, the accounting of the Reichert House, or the purchase of certain pieces of property, including the biomass plant. The commission’s response to the audit report of the Reichert House was to fire the auditor. Go figure. The commission is rightly concerned about inequities in our community. Raising taxes and fees and utility rates is not the way to address this issue. Whether one is an owner or a renter, these rate increases will have a significant impact on personal finances. The landlord will have no choice but to pass along the increases to the renter in the form of higher rents. This will also have a negative impact upon attracting new businesses to the city, further negatively impacting the lack of jobs for our citizens and could lead to an exodus of jobs that are already here. This irresponsible increase in taxes and fees will impact the people who are most vulnerable financially. The ones… that you are trying to help. I implore the commission to find ways to cut the budget across all departments except police and fire protection and hold our taxes and fees at the current level. Police and fire protection are the most basic of government services and should not require a special fee to fund them. Sometimes you seem to have forgotten that you were elected public servants and should meet the needs of your citizens. One of these needs is to hold the line on taxes and fees. A forensic audit of the city of Gainesville might be appropriate to expose any irregularities in the use of our tax dollars.”

“You’ve refused to cut a single penny of your own wasteful discretionary expenditures. Not a single penny”

Nathan Skop: “Each of you should be ashamed of yourselves for not being good stewards of taxpayer money and imposing these hardships on hard-working Gainesville families that cannot afford these increases you continue to put on us because you’re so concerned about everything else in the world than core government functions. Our police union doesn’t even have a contract. You’ve refused to cut a single penny of your own wasteful discretionary expenditures. Not a single penny… In fact you’ve increased your budget. You continue to eat catered meals at taxpayer expense. You travel all over the place on taxpayer-funded junkets and you don’t give up any of that wasteful discretionary expenditures before you impose this financial hardship on everyone in this room and on everyone at home. I hope the media will take the time to get the numbers right. There’s a lot of spin and propaganda where you sit there and manipulate things and talk about baskets of services. We have some of the highest electric rates in the state of Florida, and they’re going higher. You have no compassion whatsoever, commissioners, for the hard-working Gainesville families and the poor that can’t afford this… Bottom line, before you increase our rates tonight, before you increase our taxes—15.64% property tax increase, 32% Fire Assessment Fee increase, GRU increase, cut your budget.”

“You’ve got to find something that you can cut.”

Ernesto Martinez: “Every dollar that these bills go up in all of these areas that you’re proposing is an instant uptick on your poverty rate. And I also must say that I think it is worthy of note for the public to know, especially the district that’s represented by Mr. Arreola, that he’s conveniently not here. I think he’s neglecting his constituents, and yet he’s going to go ask for their vote. He’s going to go ask to put a sign in their yard. He’s going to ask for some money. Just as all of y’all did when you ran for your office. Every last one of y’all gets an electric bill. You’re hurting yourself, not just the poor. Yourselves. Your family. Your neighbors. Your friends. Relatives. And yet you blindly go ahead and do it. I’m begging you to please, some of you, please take the time and think of what you’re doing, not just to your constituents but every human being living in this city paying that light bill. In view of the fact that you will not cut your budget, the very least you could do is go back and vote this down so that you can readdress that issue. You’ve got to find something that you can cut.”

“I’m kind of begging you now”

Evelyn Foxx: “I’m President of the Alachua County branch of the NAACP. I come this evening to urge you all not to support this budget with the increases that you are proposing. It will be travesty. It is travesty. Before I came here this evening I went to visit a friend, old lady that’s 82. And she told me that her bill was $585 last month. And most of you know her. I think she’s worked on — or contributed to most of your campaigns. My bill last month, with just the two of us in our house is almost $590. And then we’re talking about this big increase. Please don’t do that to the citizens of this city. Please don’t. Please consider other ways that you can cut your budget to make things work. But please don’t impose any more — I mean, we have — we’re at wit’s end. Some people don’t have — they have to choose between their utility bills, the bill we get from GRU with all of the everything on it, and buying their medication. $5 may not be a lot to a lot of you, but believe me, there are seniors out there who cannot fill a $5 prescription if they pay their bills. So I urge you on behalf of the NAACP and the people that’s been calling and I’m sure you all have gotten lots of calls and e-mails as well, don’t do that to us. Not at this time. Please don’t. Will you please consider not increasing these rates at this time? Please don’t. I’m kind of begging you now.”

“None of you said… we don’t need this extra person and this extra city manager… and this extra study”

Mark Goldstein: “We knew some time ago that your Plan Board and you were going to allow very high-rise buildings in the town but you didn’t have fire engines to get up there. You started thinking how are we going to pay for that. The fire engines we have won’t go 5, 10, 12 stories high. I came down here, I came before the Plan Board, you all looked at me, you smiled, you said thank you. You’re polite, but you’re not getting us anywhere. We’ve got the high-rise buildings and now you’re stuck with $8 million dollars worth of fire problems. We’re paying a transfer, everyone in this room and everybody else, to the big-time developers who aren’t here tonight, they’re not sitting with you, and we’re going to transfer that money, [32%] increase to these fancy fire engines. You tried to put it in a bond issue but that was real ugly. So you backed off. That’s what’s going on in town. We’re transferring our money to inappropriate planning, taxing, and way of building the town. You haven’t improved it. You’ve made it bigger and now you’re asking for a whole lot more for the big boys. Now that’s the truth. So I’ll vote for your opponents again and I hope everyone else will, and we’ll learn from tonight whether you vote for it or against it because it got here and it shouldn’t have got here because you weren’t talking about not getting it here. None of you said well, we don’t need this extra person and this extra city manager and this extra city manager and this extra study. I didn’t hear any of that in the last 5 years. We need this, this and this. None of which has made life better.”

“My primary concern… is those who have been left behind for decades.”

The next speaker didn’t identify herself: “I am here to disagree with what the budget proposal is. Because my primary concern for our city at this point in time is those who have been left behind for decades. I think we have a unique opportunity at this time to address the disparity in our city and in our county. And I think that should be our focus. And I hear the people in our community who say that while $5 is not particularly a hardship to me, there are plenty of those people in this community that $5 is a hardship. And I don’t think we should be dismissive of that. I think we have an opportunity for the Renters’ Rights and Responsibilities initiative that we’ve worked so hard on and I have strongly supported for some of the energy efficiency standards to be put into place so that those in the lower end of our economic spectrum would have an opportunity to benefit from that, if they’re paying 500-plus dollars on their electric bill, before we would consider any increase in the GRU bill. There are many many needs and many many opportunities in our city. But I think it’s imperative that the top of that priority list be those in our city at the bottom end of our socioeconomic opportunity so that we can help raise up everybody in our city.”

“I pray that everyone in my community that lives in his district vote him out”

Dwayne Banes: “I just want to say that I’m very disappointed. I came here because of GRU. I came here because of that lack of heart to show with East Gainesville. I come here for [Commissioner Hayes-Santos], who’s lived in my area, and I pray that everyone in my community that lives in his district vote him out, that he deserves to be voted out. and each and every one of y’all deserve to be voted out that does not represent your constituents… And I think each and every one of y’all should be held accountable… And not only that y’all came and asked people to vote for y’all, y’all pretty much saying that now we’re here, we’re going to agree with GRU. Them are the same people that y’all said you were going to oppose when you were running. Them the same stances that you say we’re going to make a difference. We’re going to make a difference. But we don’t see no difference being made. And that’s the problem. The problem is the platform that y’all stood on, y’all are refusing to continue to stand on our platform. Y’all are refusing to be the voice of our constituents that y’all said that y’all would. And that’s the problem that we’re in a time when you have people that can’t get a brand-new air conditioner, can’t get updated in their homes that they own, that they’re financially unable to do. And yet y’all continue… Like I said, I live in [Hayes-Santos’s] district, and I hope that people are listening. I hope the cameras are listening and I hope they vote you out. Because you’ve been on every committee, when it comes to GRU you vote yes. Every time GRU comes, you vote yes. And I hope that each and every one that’s in here, look at the people you voted in. Look at what they’re doing to the city of Gainesville.”

“I think there’s so many repercussions to increasing these bills that we didn’t really think of”

Adele Franson: “I think it’s very obvious that there’s a lot of people that have addressed this issue for years, years. And I’ve gone to many of the meetings when Mr. Bielarski spoke about GRU, last year, the year before. And the result of that, as I remember, was that we can look forward to an 8% decrease in our utility bill and we don’t have to fear any black swans. Well, the reality is that it didn’t turn out that way… much has been said time and time again in our media, in our meetings, about the frustrations about the increases that just automatically seem to be coming to the poor people as well as the rich people. And I can say that it isn’t just those who can’t afford their $5 for their nitroglycerine bill but also I try to be a good steward of my money. I try to… be environmentally concerned. But again, what money I have, I think, is my end of life money. Certainly if anything happens to me, my health care bill could wipe me out. And I think about — and I think there’s so many repercussions to increasing these bills that we didn’t really think of. I went to some areas and talked with people about the increase and I think sometimes it leads them to drink. We don’t even think of that. If they get frustrated, they get depressed or whatever because they can’t pay their bill, they can never get ahead. So we don’t think of the possible outcomes of raising people’s utility bills, taxes, or whatever. And so I think that there’s a lot of ripples to this wave.”

“Don’t increase the bill… It’s hard. It’s really hard”

Frankie Scott: “[I’m] a resident of Seminary Lane, off of 6th Avenue. I’m here to ask the commission not to approve this increase of GRU. The bill is already too high. Consider the overall income of everyone. Our rent is high already. We’re paying $800 and $900 for rent on a fixed income. And then you got to turn around and pay $500 for the utility bill. That is way too much. So we got to look at more than just the budget, you know. Consider the overall cost of living for everyone. Income is not increasing. You get a minimum little increment, 1%, 3%, other people is getting a bigger increase than we are. But we can’t afford it with the little increases that we get… And the utility bill is a little higher for us because of houses not fixed up, you know, and the air coming through and the bills going real high. They’re not considering that. Please, consider all of that. Don’t increase the bill… It’s hard. It’s really hard. Bless you.”

“There are too many unknowns in the proposed budget to warrant the increased burden on residents and businesses.”

Tana Silva: “I want to reiterate what… others have said about the extreme distress. There’s a family… on my block that has four generations living in a 25-year-old Habitat house right now. And they are in such extreme dire straits that their utilities were cut off. And we all don’t know what to do about them. There’s no one on my block who makes $25,000 a year, I live in Pleasant Street… The city is in a development boom that, like any boom, can’t last. Deficit spending and tax and utility rate increases are not justified or wise. The budget message in July said roads and police once anchored city services but now city government is exploring unrelated uncharted territories. I know of no time that roads and police were all city government did and no time that they weren’t essential. The uncharted territories appear to be frankly more than three years of mismanagement and unaccountable spending based on slogans, high-paid superfluous hires and consultants, and a strategic frameworks and projects that the public knows nothing about, on top of the biomass fiasco. I ask, like others are asking, that you resist the rate increases and extend the current budget long enough to come up with a better one. Then work with the new city manager and the public to reset priorities. Corporate UF has finally realized that innovation isn’t about real estate. Meanwhile, in ten years how much have city residents paid for Innovation Square infrastructure and related rent, consultants and hires? For what return? City payroll has ballooned in recent years in ways that deepen pay inequalities. We still have no list of new positions and salaries in the last 3.5 years, but a records request turned up a 20% increase in $100,000-plus positions in just one year. The proposed budget shifts nearly a million dollars in cost from the CRA to the city for Depot Park and Bo Diddley Plaza. It mentioned funneling  unspecified Wild Spaces and tourism tax funding to the new department. On and on, There are too many unknowns in the proposed budget to warrant the increased burden on residents and businesses. Much greater accountability and transparency are needed. Please take time to do better.”

“Don’t be a mosquito, please”

Kali Blount: “I live in the Power District, very near this building. In fact, I’m in an apartment just a block from my damaged house that I’m trying to repair. And for this little piece of an apartment, I’m paying 56% of my income… And then when my AC is not frozen up, this old HVAC is running at a high, high rate, and the landlord won’t change it out. So, you know, people get victimized from enough directions already without having our local government that is supposed to make life better for the citizens instead parasitize us by sucking us dry. Don’t be a mosquito, please. We need a government that’s going to help the people. And our rates are high enough as they are.”

“ I’m gonna get on my knees, and I’m gonna beg you”

Pamela Clark: “In my household, of which I’m the largest income producer, if I’m feeling this, and I’m going to feel it if you pass this budget, I understand for a fact that each person who has stood up here and said they’re not going to be able to make it, they’re not going to be able to make it. It’s not going to work. And it’s beyond heartbreaking. I think the average income in Gainesville is $44,000. I make a little more than that, and if I’m really, really, really at the top of my game excellent, I might get [a 3% raise]. So when I overspend my budget in my personal life, and I’m at the end of the month without money, where do I go to get the money? I can’t sit behind a desk and say you give me money. I want some of yours because you’ve got plenty. It doesn’t work that way. I either have to use a credit card and ruin my credit score but sometimes you have to do what you have to do… We may have to move now. This is my dream. This is where my daughter met her… husband… I’ve never lived in a city where I felt — and I spent all of those 30 years in South Florida. They got us beat hands down. They care, or at least they’re smart enough to make us think they care. I don’t feel cared for…. I’m gonna get on my knees, and I’m gonna beg you…”

“I never had to sit through a meeting like this where I had to hear people beg.”

Gary Gordon: “I’m a former mayor commissioner, years ago. I want to keep it short. I don’t want to take up all of the time. So I’m not going to say that in the three years that I did serve I never had to sit through a meeting like this where I had to hear people beg. Because we tried to do the work ahead of time and keep the rates down. Now, I want to say — I would suggest this. I don’t want you to just vote against this. I want you to lower the rates. I want to say this. Your hands are not tied. If you really want to show the people of Gainesville that you’re listening, then you can make this decision tonight to not do this and to take an even further step. I have one further suggestion. Take the director of the utilities and return it to being a manager under the city manager rather than a charter officer. And demonstrate that you’re running things and then run them.”

“She had 11 residents who had their utilities cut off. She told me that there were nine more scheduled for tomorrow.”

Danielle Chanzes: “I’ve been living here in Gainesville for eight years, and I’ve been an activist in the community for that time. Earlier today I was planning an event in a low-income community that I work in that I’m doing tomorrow, and I had the social worker at the property ask me for a hug because she had 11 residents who had their utilities cut off. She told me that there were nine more scheduled for tomorrow. This is one of the lowest-income blocks in the community. It was pretty heartbreaking to give her a hug and have her almost in tears as we’re trying to plan this event for the community and try to bring resources into a community that’s already disadvantaged in our neighborhood. When I was 23 I got a job and I was really excited that I was able to finally not have to live with six or seven roommates. I lasted six months living on my own. There were months where I didn’t run the AC for the entire month, and I had utility bills that were over $250 for a single person living in a studio apartment in East Gainesville. This isn’t just me speaking about, oh, my utilities. I’m a trained energy auditor with the Community Weatherization Coalition, so I’ve been up close and personal with these issues. I have been going into homes for the past four years doing anything that I could to bring just the slightest decrease in utility bills, changing light bulbs from incandescents to LEDs and changing aerators on water faucets from 2.2 gallons/minute, which is the average, to 1.0 gallons/minute, so that that extra gallon per minute that they were saving might save them some money on their utility bills. I’ve been doing that for four years because these bills are such a burden that any little thing counts.

“And also, in 2017 I took a class with Cynthia Barnett, and we did as a class a whole dive into the energy burden here in Alachua County and what our class found, over 20 students did an investigation, was that Gainesville’s poorest residents spend 22% of their income on utility bills, and that’s far higher than the national average and quadruple what most local families pay as a percent of income. And the poorest census blocks are paying more for utilities per square foot than the average GRU customer.  

“You all put out this racial equity report. You created an entire commission… your own little committee to address these issues, but you’re considering this rate increase that’s going to affect these people that you claim to care about. In that investigation I did with the class, my portion of it was on emergency utility assistance. And I went to Catholic Charities, and I spoke with the Salvation Army and all of these places and had to talk to them about the millions of dollars that is being poured in just on emergency utility assistance. That’s not justice. We should do better in this community.”

“These people are suffering and you are the one that propagated this [biomass] plant and then purchased it.”

Brian O’Brien: “My heart is broken listening to the people of Gainesville have to beg you all to make the reasonable decision to cut your budget. It’s really not that difficult… The GRU rates that the people are begging you to cut, the rates are solely driven by the biomass plant that you single-handedly — you’re [Mayor Poe] the only person in this room that had their fingers in every decision to build that plant. It’s been an epic failure, and it’s resulted in all of these people suffering. It’s a terrible travesty. We are not helping anybody in Gainesville by burning half of he forest to create electricity. You need to shut the plant down, reassign people to other power plants, and stop wasting the money. You’re spending $90 million worth of interest to pay the bonds for this plant that you paid $750 million for. That is the essence of what’s driving all of these rate increases. You must acknowledge the mistakes that you have made. … These people are suffering and you are the one that propagated this plant and then purchased it. Please cut your budget, sir.”

“Please hear the citizens and respond in a positive manner and cut the budget.”

Christina Fields: “Numbers appear as unemotional figures on a piece of paper. We’ve seen that. They just are there. Figures can be manipulated. They can be masked. And they can serve the interest of a few. I’m afraid this is what I’m seeing with this proposed budget. To the citizens of Gainesville, these numbers come with serious consequences. It breaks my heart to hear the citizens step forward with their pleading, with their emotional — wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Please hear the citizens and respond in a positive manner and cut the budget. In fact, cut it so severely as to help and support the needs of our citizens. Then cut the utility rates. Make it happen. Serve your constituents.” 

“GRU has the third highest residential electric rate in the state and the highest commercial rate.”

Lauren Martin: “So your budget would harm the impoverished people in our community. Already 33% of the community is living in poverty according to census data, which is awful, considering that we live in such a clearly prosperous city. As I hope you already know, Gainesville has the fourth most economic inequality of any city in the entire nation. These issues are not going away anytime soon, and I don’t really think y’all are doing enough to make it more bearable to live as a person in poverty in this city. Increasing property taxes will likely increase rent, and there’s already very few affordable options in this city for rent. And furthermore, the poorest citizens in the community are spending the largest percentages of their income on electricity and utilities. It’s a problem all over the country, but it’s particularly bad here in the southeast. 

“Additionally, the GRU cost would disproportionately affect our black neighbors, according to a 2008 NAACP report of racial inequality in Alachua County. Black households spend the highest share of their income on energy and utility costs, 39.6% higher than the community average for electricity and 34.8% higher than the community average for utilities. Whereas white households pay around 10% less for energy and 5.9% less for utilities as a share of household per capita income versus the community average. Increasing rates will increase the economic and racial disparity between members of our community, which is already ridiculously horrible and not going away. Let’s be honest.

“Lastly, GRU has the third highest residential electric rate in the state and the highest commercial rate. We don’t want to bear the burden of this budget and we — I want to see this community actually be a place that is prosperous, you know, that people aren’t suffering on a daily basis. Because the suffering in this community is unbearable. We really don’t want to live in this community. It could be a place that is beautiful and equal, but it’s not. And we need to do something about it.”

“Buy some time with a continuing resolution. The statute permits it.”

Robert Mounts: “I had no idea how many of these stories would be told to you tonight. As you know, I broke my silence after about three months on July 18th, after it had been reported in the Gainesville Sun that you were going to make these increases. And I acknowledged then, the difficulties of making cuts in any governmental budget. I know that you tried. I know that you looked at specific areas and the problem with doing that, as I mentioned then, was that everybody has their own pet project. Or the thing they want to protect. And it’s hard to do that. Hard to even make trade-offs and do that. Some of you volunteered to give up your increments in order to get a better budget. Early on, the staff recommended that you do a hiring freeze, which they said would… save $6 million. I know you didn’t want to do that because you want to bring on  60 new full-time employees to replace prison labor and to bring the former GREC contractor employees on as full-time employees of the city. Failing that I said, you can determine how much you need and direct a percentage cut across the board, like the federal government has done from time to time, or the Department of Defense has done from time to time. And whatever that percentage is, whether it’s 5% or 8% or 10%, the department heads will come back to you through the city manager and tell you how they can do that and still provide essential services. 

“But the bottom line — and I know some of you are very concerned about the rates, but all of these five agenda items are connected. If you vote rates down, then some of you will want to increase the millage rate… And the outcome of that is higher rents. We can argue over how much that’s going to affect people who rent. But what you’ve already proposed is significant. I don’t know the exact percentage. All of these signs, including the borrowing, including the borrowing are part of your funding and your revenue sources, and it has to be considered together. All of these comments are relevant to every single one of these agenda items tonight, and I implore you to accept my suggestion: buy some time with a continuing resolution. The statute permits it. You can’t tell me it doesn’t. All you have to do is approve the current budget for a little bit longer while you figure this out and make the off-setting cuts that you need to make in order to prevent these people and allow the voiceless from being harmed.”

At the end of the citizen comment period, the commissioners had their chance to speak. Commissioner Helen Warren spoke for 15 minutes: “I’ve been making two pages of notes, I’ve been listening, I’ve been feeling, I’ve been crying with you… And you know, one of my basic premises that I’ve worked with, not just in this position but in my whole life: problems have solutions. And when I came on board I didn’t say I was going to get rid of GRU. I said I was going to work with the community attacks that were going on that were tearing GRU apart. And the attacks that didn’t recognize how much GRU is one of the best assets that this community has. The city gets one-third of their budget from GRU… And my basic approach throughout every budget year is what are our basic needs that we’re taking care of—public safety… Public works is one of the best run departments… Police and fire. Everybody keeps saying we need to have the police and fire departments as the highest priority because that’s the first job of community safety. We’ve been putting that on the priorities and we’ve been working on the labor relations. And it’s not been just the fault of the city that we haven’t gotten an improvement with the labor relations. But we’re the best that we’ve ever done in about five years with getting an agreement in place and that’s because we put forth a total rewards study to not just take care of the back pay that people have not been kept up with over the years but every department in the city.

“To bring up the minimum wage. To quit paying people $11.25 an hour and get them to $15 an hour. Do you guys want us to get done with that? No. Do you guys want us to go back to prison labor? No. The whole thing with getting those programs behind us was to put those jobs to the people. I could go on and on and on. I’m going to cut to one of the problems I have heard. Utilities, rent, and taxes. We could reduce those things by 25% and there are going to be people out there still suffering because they don’t have enough income. And this is an area that we really are trying to work on. That element, the woman who says — the studies that she’s done with Cynthia Barnett and seeing the income inequality—there hasn’t been a process in this city that I’ve seen in a long time that is working on trying to do some things as a big total community with the Chamber of Commerce, the University of Florida, Santa Fe College to be serious in looking at racial disparity in this community.”

“If you come forward and say we tried that 10 years ago and it didn’t work, then get out of the way”

Warren continued, “Not since the ’60s have I seen a national conversation going on that I am excited to think we are going to be able to do something in the next five years if we can focus on what is the priority at this time. If you come forward and say we tried that 10 years ago and it didn’t work, then get out of the way because we need the people to come together who are going to say, I’ll give it another try. Because we need to have 20 people on board where we’ve only had ten before. We need to have every agency in the city on board that we’ve only had one on board at a time. We have, at this point, the Friendship Seven, and we have to keep hammering at them … and remind them. But don’t think it’s going to be fixed in one year and one election cycle. We need another set of commissioners—I’m termed out, so all you guys get what you want. I’m termed out. But you need somebody else to come on board to carry the baton to get the racial disparity taken care of. There are certain things we cannot do with the University of Florida that a private university can do. They’re locked with how they can use their funds. But then we go to the Chamber, and we go to the businesses, and we say you guys need to step it up. 

“I’ve been in the attics, I’ve been in the houses of people who are paying $500 a month, 1,000 square foot home. Not an inch of insulation overhead, metal ductwork that you can’t find any more,  but they’re disconnected like tinker toys, up overhead. So no wonder that family was paying $500-$700 a month on their utility bill. We had, with the CWC and Rebuilding Together, a family of mom and dad and three daughters, I was up there with another couple and two other couples. We had about eight people in that attic putting those pieces of ductwork back together, wrapping them up with the proper tape. This house was built in the 60s, and who knows how long those pipes have been sitting apart. And now I see all of the good people leaving who don’t want to hear that there are solutions… there are solutions to the problems. But if we just think—I try to think, okay, how much would we need to reduce our utility bill so that people aren’t going to be shut off? To the woman who said she was here in 2006, the lady who moved back, welcome for being a boomeranger… In 2006, I can tell you there were people who were having their utilities shut off then, too. There were people picking up their eviction notices. Why? Because we don’t pay a fair wage across the board. We don’t have people earning—we don’t have people working in a field that they have a passion for. Imagine if everybody could go out there and work with something that they like to do and get paid more than $15 an hour. 

“I’m mentoring a family right now with mom and dad and three kids. They both are working two jobs and they’re not bringing home $2,000 a month. And their expenses are $2,100 a month. And that doesn’t include the food. So again, how much would we have to reduce the utilities to make it affordable? But if we can lift up their income earnings, the mother is only 30. She wants to be a nurse. Or a teacher. So to go from earning $1500 a month, she could go to earning $3,000 a month. So what I want us to come together with, bring your passions back. 

“But let’s look at CareerSource, our school system, our Youth Build, our Project Rebuild. If you’ve got a home that’s getting more than a $300 a month utility bill and you’re under 2,000 square feet, I want to hear it. That’s where Project Rebuild, Building Together can help with insulation, that’s what Community Weatherization can help with. And we’ve got other funds that we can do programs. That can help with people who own their homes. Please set up an appointment to meet with me, really. I work with the CWC. I’ve been doing that for more than eight years. If you’ve got more than $500 [utility bills], I’ll bet you need insulation, you’ve got some holes somewhere that need to be fixed or a new appliance. I promise you. You can’t have new appliances and have that kind of a utility bill and not have holes that things are just seeping through. Problems have solutions. 

“If we just reduce the utilities, we’re not going to fix it for those who are just earning less than $25,000 a year. We’ve got to find a way to lift the earning ability… People complain about the travel. I just came back from a trip in Durham where there was an incredible conversation about bringing together the conversation about race. And I heard things that I haven’t heard before. And as a white privileged person, there’s a lot that I still need to learn. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to pull out of the solution. And I can’t do it alone. Again, if only ten people show up and it takes 20 people to lift the barn, let’s get the  20 people together. How many of you love the analogy of a community barn raising? It’s one of the most powerful things you can do. Once you do one, you want to go do another one. You get together and help somebody paint their house and have them come home and see what that looks like, it’s like that TV show where they move the van and people see a new house in front of them. You go in with Rebuilding Together and put new flooring in, a new floor where there was a hole in the laundry room… and a ramp in there so they can get into their house and paint the house inside and out and you see the look on those people’s faces, to me that’s fun. It’s so much fun… But these are things that are—to me, that’s more important than a Friday night dance. Sure, maybe we put too much money into our Friday night music stuff… Let’s figure out what the problem is and fix it. And come together as a community. Jesus, we get more excited about a football game than we get about working together in the community. If you want to know what the national first place football team is but you don’t care what your city is doing, come on, team. 

“Let’s rebuild it together. Let’s get these houses insulated, let’s get these houses with some appliances and let’s—you know what, painting is the cheapest thing you can do but you can put pride in a house. You can lift up a community. But get new appliances. And we have a department here that wants to do that. I didn’t mean to take the wind out of the sail and all of these people have to leave to regroup their arguments, but you guys, we have got to realize that the funding of this city—for the last 5 years, we did roll back taxes. We didn’t raise taxes. … I used to paint houses. I feel like I’m really on a roll here. Let’s get it together and get serious.

“Mrs. Foxx, you know where I come from. Don’t just say what the problem is and don’t think just lowering the utility bill is going to fix it. But look at what the other things—rent. There’s all of those—we’ve had this incredible landlord summit and had landlords come together who heard what the problems were, okay? We’ve got people talking together. You hear that thing that we have a failure to communicate? Let’s get people in the room to talk about it. We know we need to improve rent. We know that we can improve the standards of energy efficiency. And we know we can make utilities better. 20 years from now we’re probably all going to be solar powered anyway. Who is going to put the solar power on the people’s houses? They’re going to be left behind by the wealthy people who can afford the solar power. We got to come together with some other solutions to bring this community together. And I hope you will be there for those meetings, too. We’ve got some housing committees that are gearing up for low income, getting people into houses, we’ve got a really great continuum of care working on that here, we’ve got to quit getting people evicted and going through a cycle of evictions where they’re just going for another landlord that’s going to tear them apart. That’s not the city doing that, you all. I could go on. … But I don’t see just not doing the utilities, not doing the property taxes. For the five years I’ve been here, we’ve done like almost nothing with our utility bills. And it didn’t fix a single problem. I want us to fix some problems. .. I’ve given personal money to help people with their utility bills. Serious. But who is going to help them next month? They got to get better jobs. We’ve got to raise their income. And we’ve got to get the kids to want to raise their income.”

Mayor Poe followed Warren: “Maybe what I’m about to say is obvious or overly simplistic. I’ve been doing this longer than anybody up here. I first came on the commission in 2008. I was on the commission through the great recession. I was part of over $20 million in cuts to the city budget. I’ve been through some very, very difficult times up here. What I can tell you is every single person that I’ve ever served with took this responsibility incredibly seriously. And I have had stark differences with people I’ve sat up here with, on whether we should be raising or lowering taxes at certain times, utility rates, by how much or not. They were all good people. They were all smart people. And they all made a decision with the information they had in front of them with the best interest of the community at heart. And in those decisions people voted differently from one another. This is not a binary right and wrong. It is a matter of opinion on what you believe is in the best interest of the community. Specifically for the GRU rates, we have—and by we, I mean the elected officials, the GRU staff, have done everything in our power over the last several years to keep rate increases down or nonexistent. And a lot of hard decisions were involved with making that so. GRU—when people say cut the budget and you don’t cut anything, GRU has made significant cuts internally… When we cut beyond the flesh and get to the bone, what you’re really talking about is putting the utility in jeopardy. You’re talking about jeopardizing your infrastructure, your reliability of the utility, the safety of the workers. You’re talking about losing highly-qualified workers to other utilities, and that’s not in the best interest of any of us.

“And so the first desire of any elected official is to do more, provide more services for your community, a high level of service, better quality for less cost. Those two things very often don’t go together. You can’t cut and do more at the same time. And so it’s with great difficulty that we arrived at this budget for GRU and tried to minimize increases as much as possible. And so you saw at the end of the day for a person that uses all four services, about a 2.3% increase, which is right there around cost of living, keeping in mind that that’s lower than we were four years ago. We have done everything that we can to try to hold the line with GRU without sacrificing the quality and safety and integrity of the workforce. And so—I know that there’s a good number of you that came here tonight to speak with us and that care deeply about these issues and care deeply about our city. And you know, I want you all to please hear me when I say that we put a tremendous amount of effort into getting where we are. And if it were possible to maintain a high standard of quality and delivery of service at GRU and lower rates at the same time, of course that’s what we would be doing. That’s the simplest thing in the world. But we have a fiduciary responsibility. We are put here to make the hard decisions. Even when they’re unpopular because they’re in the best long-term health of our community. We’ll continue—Commissioner Warren is absolutely right. We’ll continue to work on these disparity issues. When it comes to poverty, when it comes to racial disparity, these are generational and systemic problems, and they have as much to do with income as they do cost of living. And so we need to work on that. And we are working on that.

“Part of the reason that we have this budget with us today is to focus our energy and efforts on those things, to really move the dial. And I believe we have the right team together to do that. And a community that’s willing to roll up their sleeves and put together the work necessary to make it happen. And so yeah, this is difficult. It means a lot to us that you all took time out of your night to show up and share your thoughts with us. I hope that you can hear from me how difficult this is, that we don’t take this lightly. And that we want to make sure that both our utility, police force, fire department, public works, parks and recreation meet the level of service that you should expect and that we try to provide.”

The commission then voted to increase the rates, 4-2, with Harvey Ward and Gigi Simmons voting against the increases and David Arreola absent.

[Editor’s note: Since the citizens didn’t get a chance to speak after Warren and Poe spoke, we want to mention a few things. First, most of the people who spoke about the hardship of a rate increase were retired or were talking about retired people. No wage increase will affect their income, so nothing that Ward mentioned on the income side would make a difference for them.  Improving their homes and appliances, of course, will make some difference, but many will have to absorb these cost increases while waiting for these groups to fix their homes. Second, when GRU made their budget, they requested a reduction in the General Fund Transfer, with corresponding rate increases if the GFT was not reduced. So these increases could have been avoided if the city had been willing to cut its general fund budget and take less money from GRU. The final vote on the budget will be on September 26.]

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