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City commission passes millage rate in highly questionable procedure

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / JULY 28, 2019

During the July 18 Gainesville City Commission meeting, the commission considered a resolution to set the maximum millage increase for the FY20 budget. It is notable that they never read the resolution itself, which said much more than their shorthand of “.55 mills” or “the resolution.”

Florida statutes require the city commission to notify the property appraiser of its “rolled-back millage rate,” or the rate that would bring in the same amount of money in property taxes as they collected last year, given this year’s property values. Last year’s millage was 4.7474, but the rolled-back rate is 4.5810—so a rate of 4.5810 for FY20 would bring in the same amount of money as they collected last year. The new proposed rate is 5.2974 mills, which is .7164 mills greater than the rolled-back rate. The resolution stated, “The FY 2019-2020 proposed operating millage rate is 5.2974 mills, which is greater than the rolled-back rate of 4.5810 mills by 15.64%.”

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During Karen Fiore’s budget presentation, there was a new line item, $704k in “Personal Services Departmental Adjustments” (can anyone explain why the city uses “personal” when they presumably mean “personnel”?). Only Commissioner David Arreola was curious about why this adjustment was there; Fiore explained, “The city invested in a new budget software about two years ago, and we had a little bit of issue with it unfortunately, and it was not processing one of our department’s personnel service, all of their salaries, so all of the numbers that we’ve been providing you throughout this budget process actually excluded that … It’s a small department, so there were no red flags… so that’s what the $704,000 is, to fund their personnel services for that department.”

During citizen comment, Nathan Skop pointed out that three members of the commission had previously voted against the budget because it asks too much of hard-working families. He said the city had not cut anything from its budget, in spite of a $4 million deficit (which they propose to make up by increasing the fire assessment fee, property taxes, and GRU electric rates).

Debbie Martinez said that the commission’s policies hurt lower-income people the most. George Braun said that the commission should adopt a budget that is supported by the commissioners from the east side of town, where more lower-income people live, “because you profess that you want equity, and you profess that you want to support East Gainesville, and yet the two commissioners that are most involved with equity in East Gainesville are not supporting this budget as you have it.”

Mark Goldstein, a former mayor-commissioner of Gainesville, said that the commission keeps making Gainesville a more expensive place to live. He said that expensive administrative staff have contributed to the larger budget and that the commission should focus there. He also encouraged the commissioners who previously voted against the budget to propose cuts instead of just voting against the budget. 

Susan Fairforest described her 92-year-old mom, who recently received a $400 GRU bill and decided to stop using her air conditioner. Ms. Fairforest said her mom now had mildew in her home, and she is concerned about her health. She also said the increases are significant for people on fixed incomes.

Robert Mounts suggested cutting salaries of highly-paid administrators, a hiring freeze, and delaying the “living wage” for all city employees: “It would not be the first time a public body had to vote against or delay a worthwhile initiative that it had earlier approved because it could not afford it… As children, we were all expected to learn the difference between needs and wants. The same is true in government. It requires maturity, discipline, and fiscal responsibility.”

During commission comment, Commissioner Gail Johnson said she wanted a different revenue mix – a different split between revenue for general government from property taxes and for GRU from utility rates. 

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said the increase for the average homesteaded home in Gainesville would be around $4.25/month. While this is true, he didn’t mention the increases in the Fire Assessment Fee and utility rates.

Commissioner Helen Warren said the city had kept wages low during the recession, and now they needed to catch up: “And what we’re doing is we’re working on taking care of some of the inequities that we’ve had across the community, with the conversation that we’re having on dealing with disparity in the lower income communities and homes. We have to do — we’re working on something about housing and bringing housing up to standards so they’re not having to pay higher utility bills because they have holes in their floors and their windows, and old appliances.” She argued that this resolution only sets the maximum millage and that they can decrease it between now and the final vote. 

The motion failed, 3-4, with Commissioners Johnson, Harvey Ward, Gigi Simmons, and Arreola voting against it. Mayor Lauren Poe appeared to be frustrated and called for a 15-minute recess. When they returned, he lectured the commission: “This is the second year in a row this has happened. We started a budget process in January. We made a multitude of incredibly difficult decisions along the way to get to this point. And once again, at the moment that we must make a decision to meet statutory requirements, we’re unprepared to do so. So we are where we are. We’ll deal with it. We’ll get a tentative millage and budget passed tonight. But I would hope that the next time we go through this, you consider all of those things prior to the last possible moment.”

He then asked the commissioners who voted against it to explain what they would vote for, because Johnson was the only one who had spoken up before the vote. 

Commissioner Arreola said he had previously asked for budget cuts but had lost those votes: “We can’t predict economic downturns. But property taxes are the first things that are hit with economic downturns. When you increase your millage by a large amount in one year, you’re setting a new floor for that millage. And I think that’s just too big of a step to take.”

Commissioner Ward suggested cutting the commission’s increments, most of which are Johnson’s equity increments (about $470k/year): “So I’m wondering if perhaps we should consider getting rid of the increments that were commission increments. That doesn’t fix the problem. That’s $700,000 or so. Doesn’t fix the problem. It might lower a required millage rate increase to a more palatable number for some folks.” He pointed out that cuts were made across departments at the beginning of the process (and this appears to be true – the starting point for this budget was actually lower than the current year’s spending; the deficit came after City Manager and commissioner increments were added). He talked about the Total Rewards study, which was a commissioned study that indicated that a number of city positions pay below market; a large chunk of the increments are going to these pay increases. “We could fix it all if we just said nobody gets a raise. And we could continue to watch employees leave left and right. I think taking care of our people is important. So the only real solution I have at this point, that is not a complete solution but it’s something, is to say maybe we should pull those commission increments off the table.”

Commissioner Simmons said that if they’re going to increase all of these costs to citizens, they should set aside money to help low-income people with their utility bills. She also offered to remove her increments from the budget: “I can forego the increments that I requested if this is gonna help those who need help the most. So those are the reasons that I said no previous to today. I believe there’s something more that we can do to help those who need it the most from the general government side.”

Commissioner Warren reiterated that they could lower the rate in the future.

Mayor Poe said the commissioner increments only added up to $750k, and that wouldn’t add up to much of a difference. He pointed out that they had voted for all of these new programs—equity staff positions, ending prison labor, increases for housing, transitioning Dignity Village, living wage increases, Total Rewards increases— unanimously, “with little to no discussion.” (This is true – there was little, if any, discussion about the costs of these programs when they were adopted. There was also no discussion at all about the job descriptions of the two new equity staff positions.)

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos pleaded with the other commissioners to vote yes if they agreed with 95% of the budget. 

Commissioner Johnson decided to change her vote, saying that she had wanted “a different mix [of revenue]. With that said, I know that we’re going to be doing an extreme amount of work in the city to work towards a more equitable city in many ways. Not just within our government, but our entire city. So that is why I am willing to make a different decision.”

At that point, she moved to reconsider the same millage rate. At that point, a lot of questionable things happened. The motion to reconsider was the first problem. The commission’s rules state: “After the decision of any question, it shall be in order for any member to move reconsideration. If the motion to reconsider is approved by a majority of those members present, the item shall be placed on a future agenda for reconsideration, subject to legal, contractual, fiscal, quasi-judicial and other constraints as staff may advise the Commission. If the Commission does not specify the future date when the item will be heard, the Mayor, in consultation with the Charter Officers, 6 will determine the date.”

So when there is a motion to reconsider, the commission must vote on whether they want to reconsider and then put that vote on a future agenda. The rules do not allow reconsideration at the same meeting. Mayor Poe checked with City Attorney Nicolle Shalley and Commission Clerk Omichele Gainey, but his question was whether someone who was in the minority on a previous vote could make the motion to reconsider. The two parliamentarians did not seem to notice that the reconsideration rule was being violated.

The commission then violated Robert’s Rules of Order, which, according to their rules, “shall guide the Commission as needed.” Mayor Poe, instead of allowing debate on the reconsidered motion, said that the motion to reconsider could also be described as “calling the question.” In Robert’s Rules, “calling the question” is a motion to cut off debate and requires a two-thirds vote of the body. Poe did not actually make a motion to call the question; he said that the motion to reconsider was “calling the question,” which is incorrect. If a motion to call the question had actually been made, the motion to call the question should have been put to a vote, and debate (including citizen comment) should have been allowed if the vote did not achieve a two-thirds majority. Without a motion to call the question, debate should have been allowed. But that vote was not held, and there was no debate; instead the commission moved straight to a revote on the millage question. Johnson changed her vote, and the motion passed, 4-3.

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