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City commission moves GNVCares forward

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Gainesville City Commission discussed their GNVCares proposal (click the link for details of the proposal) during a virtual meeting on Thursday afternoon. 

GNVCares About Neighbors

The draft proposal recommends giving households up to $2,500 to help with rent/mortgage and utility payments over a 6-month period. Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos suggested reducing the time to 2 months so they can add to the package if things don’t improve; he also suggested reducing the amount to $1,250 so more households can be helped. Commissioner Harvey Ward supported both those ideas. Commission Gigi Simmons opposed reducing the amount of money but supported reducing the time period to 3 months. Commissioner Gail Johnson preferred $2500 and 3 months. Mayor Lauren Poe supported $1250 for 2 months. (There was a lot of confusion about the time period. City Manager Lee Feldman clarified that recipients will get one payment of whatever amount commissioners decide on, and they won’t be eligible again until the time period expires. It sounded like some of the commissioners thought the recipients would get a payment every month. For example, “3 months” was proposed as being better than “2 months,” but the 2-month period actually would allow people to qualify sooner for another payment if the commission approved another round of funding.)

Commissioner David Arreola said he wanted to pass the proposal immediately, but the commission can’t talk about the federal funding sources until Monday because of meeting notice restrictions. Arreola said, “People are already in positions where they are already having to organize rent strikes because they can’t afford it.” He said that reducing the time period and reducing the grant amount “would work against the program.”

Arreola said he sees this as a “living program… The science has been pretty clear that until we get a vaccine, you’re going to have to live with this virus, and so coming up with relief, coming up with ways to establish an economy that can at least supply life’s basic needs for the long-term is what we’re going to have to do.”

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The proposal required proof that applicants have applied for unemployment benefits, but Ward asked to strike that. “I think that might help us lower the barrier to some undocumented folks, as well as just lower the barrier in general… I don’t want the inability to get through [the unemployment system] to be a barrier to getting GNVCares funds.”

Feldman explained why he needed some flexibility to move money between the various buckets: “If we have an issue in the GNVCares for Neighbors program, which is funded from both SHIP and CDBG, where we’re dealing with, let’s say, a family that has an undocumented family member… the state and the federal government may prohibit us from using SHIP and CDBG dollars. What I’d like the ability to do, in their particular case, is to take some General Fund dollars so we can provide the same type of relief to a family with an undocumented worker, and then replace that General Fund money with the CDBG dollars.” He later clarified that he wanted more of the CDBG money in the GNVCares About Business bucket, where it can be spent for businesses in CDBG areas, making more General Fund money available for residents.

Commissioner Johnson wanted more money to be dedicated to the Neighbors program instead of the Business program “because I’m more interested in individuals.” She added, “I would love for us to be able to work with certain organizations, to be able to address the needs of some of our undocumented neighbors, rather than it being a direct government-to-person exchange.” 

Mayor Poe pointed out that if they kept the amount at $2500, that would only help 278 families, “and that would be gone on the first day.”

GNVCares About Business

The proposal recommends giving businesses up to $5,000 if they have been affected by public health restrictions. Hayes-Santos said businesses should have a 25% or more drop in revenue to be eligible, and businesses with a 50% or more drop in revenue should be prioritized.

Ward wanted the proposal to be open to “certain sorts of non-profits… primarily arts organizations who are non-profits who live on ticket sales.” He wasn’t in favor of requiring businesses to disclose their revenue, either in the past or the present. 

Commission Johnson said she had a “drastically different” take on the Business proposal: “I feel like we’re making some really big assumptions… I hear Commissioner Ward saying that we want to get money into people’s hands, and primarily, I’m going to assume that’s because we want to sustain them until they can rebuild… That’s saying that it’s quite likely that these businesses will be in business for 2-3 months, and I think there’s so much information we don’t know right now… I feel like a new economy is emerging, we don’t know what that’s going to look like… and the questions that are being asked are is it sustainable?… We need to be smart about the money we’re spending…”

She talked about all the uncertainty around reopening the economy, including whether consumers would feel safe enough to return to various businesses. She said we don’t know when the students will return. “That alone will change the economic landscape of Gainesville drastically… There are way too many unknowns right now to feel comfortable about saying ‘Let’s give this business $5000 because we want them to stay around.’”

Johnson continued, “Perhaps we work with businesses to figure out what is going to make them sustainable in the new economy… and then… my preference would be to save this pot of money, literally until fall, 6 months down the road.. to say, look, here is this money, you have a great plan… here’s the money to keep on going.” She said she was afraid they would give money to businesses that might not survive the economic downturn. She proposed that individuals who receive money under the Neighbors program could “loan it to themselves” to keep their businesses afloat. 

Poe said he wanted the money directed to “local, home-grown businesses” rather than national brands. He agreed with Ward that they should strike the requirement to show proof of applying for unemployment because that system has made it difficult to apply for assistance. He wasn’t sure about providing money to nonprofits because he believes those organizations will be considered for federal funding in the next round. 

COVID-19 Equity Toolkit

The commission also discussed using the Government Alliance on Race and Equity’s (GARE) Equity Toolkit to make decisions regarding COVID-19 policies. The agenda backup presented the following 6 questions to be asked in making any COVID-19-related decision for the city (they later clarified that it only applied to decisions that rise to some threshold, but they postponed deciding on that threshold):

  1. What conditions of well-being are you trying to get your neighbors to experience? What is the outcome you’re trying to achieve?
  2. What existing data do we have to rely on?
  3. In what ways have we engaged the community on this issue?
  4. Who will benefit and who/what will be burdened by this decision? How will you mitigate unintended consequences, if any?
  5. What is your plan for implementation?
  6. How will you ensure accountability? How will you communicate and evaluate results?

After some discussion, they agreed to add the following two questions:

7.   Is this program accessible, regardless of ability or status?

8.   Is this support or relief prioritized for people in communities who need it the most and are already marginalized, such as low-income, disabled, communities of color, elderly?

During public comment on the motion to adopt the Toolkit, Evelyn Foxx, President of the Alachua County Branch of the NAACP, asked whether the community had been engaged on the Equity Toolkit, or whether it had mainly come from City Equal Opportunity (EO) Director Teneeshia Marshall and City Commission Gail Johnson. Mayor Poe responded that it “was developed through extensive community engagement, including an event that the EO Department had with the public, with some guests that came in and talked about this… This specific COVID-19 Equity Toolkit application has been developed between last week’s meeting and this week, recognizing that we’re in emergency circumstances… we wanted to make sure that we were able to apply an equity lens through whatever relief program that we did.”

Nathan Skop recommended that the commission consult with the City Attorney about whether it is legal to prioritize people by race or by age. 

The commission approved the equity toolkit framework unanimously.

“Equitable access”

During public comment on the GNVCares item, one speaker discussed “equitable access” to the programs. She said it was important for all public health messages to be presented in both Spanish and English. 

Nathan Skop questioned the spending, given all the budget increases last year (accompanied by tax and utility rate increases), and asked why the $600,000 that was budgeted for the Race and Equity Committee for FY20-21 wasn’t considered for the program. “If equity is truly an issue, then a substantive portion of this $600,000-plus equity budget should be used to directly fund GNVCares.” He also said that the city should check whether applicants have already received federal or state assistance, including $1200 stimulus checks and the $600/week extra unemployment benefits from the federal government. He said that taxpayers, not undocumented persons, should be prioritized for GNVCares. He also pointed out that the $125k to be paid to a consultant to collect and screen applicants could be used to help residents if city staff performed those functions. Skop suggested reducing the amount to $500 to help more households. 

Larry Green thanked the commission for taking undocumented persons into account. He said they pay taxes and contribute locally to our economy in various ways. “They are prohibited by law from accessing funds directly from the federal government… We encourage you to donate a significant portion of this to this community.”

Poe said, “We do not ask immigration status; that is not something the City does.”

Commissioner Simmons asked about putting some of the equity money into GNVCares, and Poe said he would ask Marshall to come prepared on Monday to talk about that.

Motions pass

Hayes-Santos made a motion to accept the GNVCares general direction and funding sources, change the Neighbors proposal to $1250 over 2 months, remove the requirement to have applied for unemployment benefits, have staff bring back suggestions for adding arts nonprofits that rely on ticket sales, have staff bring back suggestions at Monday’s meeting clarifying the requirement that businesses prove a loss of revenue, and add a requirement that a business can only get one grant from the city (no double-dipping).

Johnson requested that the motion be split between Neighbors and Business. The Business portion passed, 6-1, with Johnson in dissent. The Neighbors portion passed unanimously.

Arreola not in favor of easing restrictions

During a last round of commissioner comments, Arreola said he was looking for 5 things before “easing any restrictions that we’ve issued”: 1) A sustained and consistent fall in daily transmission rates, infection rates, and death rates; 2) Confidence that our hospitals can cope with the flow of patients; 3) More capacity for testing; 4) More protective equipment; and 5) Judgment, with the advice of health experts, that there would not be a second wave of infections.

Next meeting is Monday at 3:00

The City Commission will meet again on Monday at 3:00 to discuss the federal funds they will be using and probably pass the final version of the proposals. 

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