City commission selects Mayor Pro Tem, passes tax/rate increases
September 26, 2021
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
With very little discussion, the Gainesville City Commission passed their FY22 budget and the associated utility rates and fees at their September 23 Special Meeting.
During adoption of the agenda, Nathan Skop asked the commission to not just “rubber stamp” the items, saying that he had been watching the budget process for ten years: “I’ve been at the meetings that you guys used to hold out at Ironwood. This budget this year, both on the City government side and GRU, is a joke. There’s been no substantive discussion on any line items. There’s been no discussion on how you could reduce expenses to avoid imposing egregious rate increases on low-income families that can’t afford the bills to begin with.”
Skop continued, “But with respect to the adoption of the regular agenda, I think there ought to be some discussion that the [firefighters’ union] called for your resignation. I think the public is mad at the city commission. You don’t listen to the public. You have a commissioner that rudely flipped off City employees and collective bargaining unit members, and not one of you are willing to hold her accountable or say anything. I think there ought to be some discussion about this commission as a whole, with the exception of Desmon Duncan-Walker, resigning.”
Finance Committee Members
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The first item on the agenda was the selection of three commissioners to serve on the new Finance Committee. The agenda item stated, “At the General Policy Committee meeting on July 22, 2021, the City Commission directed that its rules be revised to bifurcate the existing Audit and Finance Committee (a Standing Committee created by the Commission rules) into two separate Standing Committees effective January 1, 2022.” However, the vote to actually pass this resolution had not yet happened; the committees were created later in the September 23 meeting.
The Audit Committee will still be the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem, along with a subject matter expert. Commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos, Reina Saco, and Harvey Ward all quickly volunteered for the new Finance Committee.
Mayor Pro Tem
The next item was the selection of the Mayor Pro Tem because Commissioner Gail Johnson, who recently resigned, is the current Mayor Pro Tem.
Ward was recognized first by Mayor Lauren Poe and said that Commissioner David Arreola had not gotten to “serve out the actual duties of Mayor Pro Tem for very much of a normal term” during 2020; he made a motion for Arreola to be the Mayor Pro Tem.
Poe said that since commissioners’ terms will now end in January instead of May, the commission could “revisit this in January and kind of get the commission on that annual cycle.”
Johnson said that she had thought that the protocol was for the outgoing Mayor Pro Tem to suggest who the new one should be. Poe said, “Usually it is the most senior person who has not yet held the position that wants the position” but that there is no rule.
During public comment, Skop said he had hoped that Duncan-Walker would be the new Mayor Pro Tem.
Johnson said, “I’m just going to express my disappointment because I was fully expecting to come here today to make the suggestion about who I would like to see as Mayor Pro Tem. And I thought that was the protocol of what we had done in the past, and that’s what I was prepared to do. And I’m disappointed that it’s working out this way.”
The motion to make Arreola the Mayor Pro Tem passed 6-1, with Johnson in dissent.
Increases in utility rates, fees, and property taxes all approved
The ordinance setting the schedule of rates, fees, and charges for electricity, water, sewage, and standard operational charges included rate increases for the next 7 years, and only Skop spoke on the item, reiterating that he had repeatedly presented them with options to avoid all the rate increases.
The vote for the increases was 5-2, with Johnson and Desmon-Walker in dissent.
The next item, a long list of City fees, also passed 5-2, with Johnson and Desmon-Walker in dissent.
The next item was the property tax millage, a 6.82% increase over the rolled-back rate. During public comment, Skop called attention to the repeated 5-2 votes: “Why do we have 5-2 votes constantly on these budget issues? Do you see the problem with that? Because we have two commissioners, Commissioner Johnson and Commissioner Duncan-Walker, that seem to have concern for low-income families, for hardworking Gainesville families, for local businesses that don’t want to impose these excessive property tax increases, millage rate increases, and GRU rate increases on Gainesville. We can’t afford it. But here you guys rubber stamp again.”
Armando Grundy-Gomes also called in: “There’s no reason to be relegated, ladies. Show some teeth. Don’t be pushed around. It’s okay to vote no. It’s another thing to call it out for what it is—not just call it out but show some teeth and take some action. And figure out what that is. Some people like to spend money and not even tell you why. Figure it out. Use context. Don’t be relegated.”
The property tax increase also passed 5-2, with Johnson and Duncan-Walker in dissent.
The GRU budget for fiscal year 2022 passed 5-2, with Johnson and Duncan-Walker in dissent.
The general government budget for fiscal year 2022 passed 5-2, with Johnson and Duncan-Walker in dissent.
Eviction prevention and utility assistance funds created
The next item was a resolution making an amendment to the FY21 budget, adding $500,000 for eviction prevention and assistance and $250,000 in assistance for people who are unable to pay their utility bills. Johnson said she would be voting for it, but she didn’t think the $250,000 for utility assistance is enough and that she hoped more would be allocated as they discussed the use of American Rescue Plan funds. The resolution passed unanimously.
General public comments suggest that traditional alignments may be shifting
During general public comment, Tina Days gave “kudos” to Reverend Rawls and Nathan Skop: “You’re fighting for lower middle class, which I am part of. And thank you for fighting along with Commissioner Johnson and Commissioner Duncan-Walker. Y’all are the only two that is speaking up for a single mother with three kids looking out for all these tax increases that y’all just increased. It’s a shame. And like I said, I do agree that it is Democrat progressives, which I used to be a part of it. But I’m not any more because y’all are taxing us to death. And the only one that’s speaking up is Commissioner Johnson and Commissioner Duncan-Walker, who I agree with Nathan Skop should be Mayor Pro Tem… We are watching and we will remember when the next election comes. Just because I’m a Democrat doesn’t mean I’m going to vote all Democrat. I’m looking at what you’re doing in office. And right now, I guess out of five, three of y’all will no longer get my vote.”
Armando Grundy-Gomes said about City Manager Lee Feldman’s severance pay: “One of you up on the commission last week got angry, looked at the mayor and said, really, we’re going to pay this guy? You can fix this. You all do a lot of talking. The people have spoken, and you all gave a big $113,000 payout. And the only thing that you can do now is still give the middle finger to every resident instead of following through and terminating that City Manager for cause… Mr. Mayor, I know you have a lot of energy for people that are migrant workers and people that are hispanic. That’s fine. You have very little energy when it comes to black people… I think you can fix this today. Gail, call for his termination for cause. Don’t sit on the soap box.”
Johnson asks Feldman to commit to not firing senior leadership
After public comment, outgoing Commissioner Gail Johnson said she was concerned that Feldman would fire people in senior leadership in the City of Gainesville before his final day: “I want to get a public answer from Manager Feldman. In your next seven weeks, I’m going to ask you very directly, is it your intention to fire any senior leadership in the City of Gainesville?”
Feldman responded, “The answer is no… It’s not my intention to let anybody go.”
Johnson then asked, “I know the immense power that you hold in that seat until you leave. Do you have any intention to willfully or intentionally do harm or put the City at risk while you’re in this space?”
Feldman responded, “Absolutely not.”
Johnson then turned to the commission: “You all will be the six bosses of Manager Feldman for the foreseeable future. And I’m just asking you to be cautious and to be aware. And to be cognizant of the fact that we are in an incredibly turbulent and tumultuous time in the City. And to make sure that we continue to do no harm. That’s all that I ask.”
Little acknowledgment of Johnson’s last meeting
Duncan-Walker then praised Johnson “because on your very last day, you have chosen to continue in the spirit of bravery and advocacy for this city that you have come to be known for. And so I say thank you for that… It has been a joy, a privilege, and an honor to serve next to you these last few months. It has been a joy, a privilege, and an honor to watch you prior to that.”
None of the other commissioners made any comments about the fact that it was Johnson’s final meeting. It is customary for the commission to have a “sine die” in which commissioners are sent off with speeches from other commissioners, former commissioners, and members of the public during their final meeting, but that did not happen.