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City commission passes rate and tax increases

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / SEPTEMBER 27, 2019

The Gainesville City Commission special meeting on September 26 was primarily to adopt the budget, as required before October 1, but an item about the funding for Grace Marketplace was put on the agenda at the last minute because of a last-minute disagreement between the county and city commissions about continuing their equal funding of the homeless shelter. The county has proposed decreasing their contribution yearly, starting in FY20, with the city funding the shelter completely ($1.5 million) by FY22. By that time, the county plans to spend $1.5 million a year on putting people in homes. The county’s decision left Grace Marketplace about $250k short for the next year. 

During citizen comment regarding adoption of the agenda, multiple people asked the commission to move the item regarding Grace Marketplace/Dignity Village to the end of the meeting so that the many citizens who had come to speak about GRU rates would be able to speak as early as possible in the meeting. Several speakers mentioned a young mom who had come with her children. Mayor Poe declined, saying they needed to deal with the homeless shelter issue and that he hoped it would be a short discussion (it ended up taking about 40 minutes).

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During the discussion, multiple commissioners expressed frustration with the county for shifting funding from Grace Marketplace to what they’re calling rapid rehousing. Commissioner Hayes-Santos, in particular, argued that emergency services for the homeless (like those provided by Grace) should be a county service. Commissioners Ward, Simmons, and Arreola took a more pragmatic approach, proposing that the commission should accept the county’s offer to continue to fund Grace Marketplace at their former level ($750k) for one more year, on the condition that the city would agree to fund a bigger piece of Grace starting in FY21 and fully fund Grace in FY22. 

(Some background: The city and county have equally funded Grace Marketplace since 2014; that is currently set at $750k/year for each. The county is now proposing a plan in which both the city and county would put an additional $250k toward closing Dignity Village in FY20, for a total of around $1 million each. Then the county would spend $1.15 million in FY21, with $250k of that going to Grace, which would require the city to increase its spending to $1.25 million to fund Grace’s $1.5 million annual budget. The other $900k from the county would go to supportive housing, rapid rehousing, and permanent supportive housing. Starting in FY22, the city would fully fund Grace Marketplace at $1.5 million per year, and the county would spend $1.5 million per year on housing initiatives.)

Commissioner Johnson implied that the county commission was not operating in good faith, saying that there is a lack of housing stock to move people into, so the county could just “save” the money if they couldn’t find available homes. She said, “I believe the county is shirking their responsibility. At the end of the day, the people that are going to be most impacted are our most vulnerable. And morally, I will not be able to go to sleep at night if I know that’s happening.” She said the city should make up for the shortfall “the county is creating.” She said she was “tamp[ing] down [her] disgust at the way this went down” but that the city should make up the shortfall.

Mayor Poe pointed out that the city had proposed a “completely equitable” plan, gradually increasing to a total of $3 million a year in spending on homeless services, with each entity paying half of Grace Marketplace and each paying half of a rapid rehousing initiative. The county commission rejected that, arguing that it was better for each entity to take full responsibility for one piece of homeless services instead of trying to split everything. 

Instead of accepting the county’s offer to maintain their funding for another year in exchange for an agreement by the city to begin taking full responsibility for Grace, Poe made a motion to direct the city manager to find money that they had budgeted to send to the county and give it to Grace Marketplace instead. Interim City Manager Bowie cautioned them that there may not be a pot of money that large that is not contractual, but Poe told her to do her best. The motion passed, 5-2, with Arreola and Hayes-Santos voting against it. The decision leaves Grace without assurance of funding past the next budget year, causing their attorney to recommend accepting the county’s offer because Grace will have trouble attracting outside funding without assurance of ongoing funding from the city/county.

At this point, an hour into the meeting, the commission moved on to the budget items. Thirty-three different citizens asked the commission to vote against the increase in GRU rates (including a residential rate increase of about 6%), and two citizens (both union representatives, who liked the increased wages in the budget) asked the commission to vote for them. 

Robert Mounts offered the option of using a continuing resolution to fund the city while the commission looks for budget cuts, and several speakers echoed his advice. 

“I have a problem when you have to tell me in order for black people in the city of Gainesville… to have equity… we got to pay for it”

Ty Loudd said, “The bottom line is that there are people in Gainesville and vulnerable communities that just can’t afford it, period. That’s just the bottom line. And I don’t think anybody is hearing us here. They just can’t afford it. I sat down and looked at… where the money is going to be spent. And I have a problem when you have to tell me in order for black people in the city of Gainesville, in order for us to have equity—which is an awesome idea, I like that proposal—but in order for us to have equity, we got to pay for it… We have to pay for two more GPD officers… you’d better [multiply] that times 20 if this passes because poverty and crime is correlated. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen here. We have to look at the bigger picture of what’s going on here. We just cannot afford it… Rents go up. We can’t afford it. Light bill goes up, we can’t afford it… So I think that there is some other way that we can try to fund this equity program besides taxing the people who the equity program is for, who’s probably going to end up homeless and with no lights. But we’ve got to pay for an equity program that we probably won’t be able to access because we don’t have any way to live and we don’t have any lights.”

“Now, if you pass this, I might have to go back to work ‘cause I won’t be able to afford it. I really can’t be retired with my lights off.”

Cary Bryant, 1st Vice President of the Alachua County NAACP, said, “I’m asking you to vote no on this rate hike. I just retired about two years ago. So far, I bought a home on the east side. And just this year, my property taxes have gone up, and the last couple months, my utility rates has crept up about $30. Now, if you pass this, I might have to go back to work ‘cause I won’t be able to afford it. I really can’t be retired with my lights off.”

“It’s always easier to say we need more, we need more. The challenge comes in figuring out how to make do with what you have.”

Loralee Hutchinson said, “Nobody ever likes price increases. And I think that they are especially offensive when people feel like every alternative has not been explored. It’s always easier to say we need more, we need more. The challenge comes in figuring out how to make do with what you have. That’s what most families in here do every month. They don’t go to their boss and say give me more money. It doesn’t work that way. We expect y’all to work the same way… There have to be places where money can be cut.”

“I just am not going to be able to do it… Please consider voting no.”

Patrice Bryant said, “I don’t have much time. I’m usually at home with my kids getting them ready for school. I sat and waited so I could have a chance to speak. I’ve been an employee at UF for the last 14 years, so I’m a full-time mom, I work full-time. I stay on the east side of town, so I will be affected by this greatly. I’m in the market looking for a home. And if this rate increase goes through, I’m going to be looking to move outside of Gainesville because I just won’t be able to do it. I’m barely making it now with no help. So I’ll be out there searching and scrambling for help if this was to happen. I just am not going to be able to do it… Please consider voting no.”

“What I want to do tonight… is congratulate you for pitting working people against poor people. I never thought I would see that.”

Gary Gordon said, “What I want to do tonight in addition to asking you to vote against this is congratulate you for pitting working people against poor people. I never thought I would see that. But you’ve got the unions coming out saying do it. And you’ve got poor people saying please don’t do it. These are two groups of people that should be and normally are united.” He joined Robert Mounts in encouraging the commission to pass a continuing resolution.

Jo Beaty encouraged the commission to look at solutions, including a continuing resolution and forming a committee to take a close look at the budget, looking for ways to cut the general government budget so the general fund transfer could be cut. 

“These were single moms, three houses didn’t have any electricity… This is a major problem.”

Faye Williams said, “Most of y’all are hypocrites… You claim to be all about helping the poor. Getting [rid of] racial discrimination… Getting rid of homelessness, but we can’t seem to grind the right way. It’s a shame that Jeremiah [the union leader] would stand here and support, and I want to thank Gary Gordon for speaking out. Because it’s been the history of the union. The union against the poor. And it doesn’t have to be that way. But it still comes back to the city commission… The last thing I want to say, when I came back home last Wednesday, and there were at least seven or eight messages on my door from the people right in Porters, in Porter Oaks, where I live, and three of those notes were about the fact, and these were single moms, three houses didn’t have any electricity… This is a major problem.”

“It doesn’t make sense to be funding an equity board by increasing inequity in this city”

Lauren Martin said, “I do support the progressive policies, but I don’t think we should be funding them with regressive taxation. It doesn’t make sense to be funding an equity board by increasing inequity in this city… You’re losing the trust of the city.”

“But I want the residents of this city to know that Commissioner Simmons hears you, and I will be voting no tonight.”

After the citizens had spoken, Commissioner Gigi Simmons spoke, “I heard what the citizens came in here and said tonight, the concerned citizens. I heard comments from my colleagues. I just want everyone to know where I stand. I’ve been in Gainesville all my life. We’re celebrating 150 years. And for the amount of people to come into this chamber with issues and concerns and problems of I cannot pay my utility bill, I cannot afford to live in this place, we are not at a place in this community where we have livable wages. It’s very disheartening for me as a commissioner to hear that.

“I sympathize with each and every one of you. I truly do, because I personally understand the struggle. I know what it’s like. I understand the hurt. I understand what it means to live paycheck to paycheck. I understand what it is to not have. I understand what it is to have to choose between food on the table or medicine for your children. I understand. And I hear you loud and clear. And I want everyone in here to know that I would be remiss to not say a single word tonight because I feel like as a commissioner and as a leader, and as a citizen of this city, we need to do better than what we’re doing.

“I have heard from people who’re well off. I’ve heard from people who’re not well off. I’ve heard from business owners. I’ve heard from single parents. I’ve heard from the elderly and the story is the same across the board. I’m only one vote… But I want the residents of this city to know that Commissioner Simmons hears you, and I will be voting no tonight.”

Mayor Poe spoke, as he often has, about how the commission voted for almost all of the new initiatives unanimously – everything from the equity initiative to ending prison labor, moving toward a living wage for city workers, and increasing wages for workers to bring them up to the market rate for their positions. 

The increased GRU rates passed, 4-3, with Commissioners Ward, Arreola, and Simmons in dissent. The increases to city fees, rates, and charges, the increased millage rate for property taxes, and the GRU and general government budgets passed by the same vote. 

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