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City commission votes to repeal salary increases; Saco says she will stop working after 20 hours

Commissioner Reina Saco speaks at the March 2 Gainesville City Commission meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In response to an agenda item proposed by Gainesville City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, the city commission voted 5-2 on March 2 to repeal their recent salary increase, ask the legislature for assistance in getting funds from the University of Florida, and ask staff to eliminate duplication of services between General Government and Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU).

Mayor Harvey Ward cautioned the commission to make the “right changes” instead of “the fast thing. Because the fast thing can cause all kinds of wreckage that we didn’t intend.” He said his plan is to go through the annual budget process, and “let’s be clear that we’re not going to fix this today or next week or the week after that. This is an ongoing process” that will end when the Fiscal Year 2024 budget is adopted.

Both City Manager Cynthia Curry and GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham told the commission that they have implemented a strategic hiring freeze, and Curry said she will be implementing a spending freeze. Curry said she has notified all City departments that she expects a “zero-based budget approach,” in which budgets are developed from the ground up instead of adding to the previous year’s budget. In addition, she has a team that will review policies and procedures, City-wide. A commissioner suggested starting the budget discussions on March 23, but Curry said that was too soon; the first discussions on the Fiscal Year 2024 budget will be in May.

Chestnut’s four-part proposal

Chestnut’s recommendation had four parts: 1) that the commission repeal the raise the previous commission passed in December (and this commission confirmed in January); 2) that the mayor send a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC), requesting assistance in the form of a payment in lieu of taxes from the University of Florida; 3) that the charter officers reduce their budgets and submit those cuts to the city commission by March 23; and 4) that the City Manager and GRU General Manager review duplicative services and try to consolidate them with the assistance of a third party.

Chestnut said the City Manager and GRU General Manager had indicated they’re already working on her third recommendation, and it was brought to her attention that former Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos had previously asked the two charter officers to work together to review duplicative services and areas of consolidation. She made a motion to direct the City Attorney to draft an ordinance repealing the recent salary increase for commissioners and authorize the mayor to send a letter requesting financial assistance from the University of Florida. Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker seconded the motion.

Cunningham said GRU’s budget meetings had already started, but since utilities are essential services, “when we look at making significant reductions, we have to make sure we’re maintaining service levels, regulatory requirements, bond requirements, and things of that nature, and so we need the time to do that.” Cunningham added that GRU does zero-based budgeting every year. GRU also has a “focus team” to define the goal they want to achieve: “JLAC–no one has really established what that goal is.” 

Commissioner Ed Book said that he “obviously” supports repealing the salary increase; he proposed repealing the salary increase on January 19, but only Desmon-Walker voted with him. He suggested reporting to JLAC on all the steps the City has taken to address budget issues since the hearing on February 23. 

Book said he hoped the consultant in part four of Chestnut’s motion wasn’t a paid consultant; Curry said that she and Cunningham had already met with GSG, a consultant that already works with the City, but they delayed further work because the Finance staff was working on getting the 2021 financial reports done. 

“I don’t want to spend an enormous amount of money. There are organizations that will work on a contingency basis as well–if they don’t find savings, you don’t owe them anything.” – Mayor Harvey Ward on whether to hire a consultant to identify duplicative services.

Mayor Harvey Ward said he had planned to get back to that effort this year, “and I think that the push from JLAC helps us in that direction… I don’t want to spend an enormous amount of money. There are organizations that will work on a contingency basis as well–if they don’t find savings, you don’t owe them anything.” Based on that, Chestnut added that part back to her motion. She also added Book’s recommendation to send a report to JLAC, describing what they’ve done so far. 

Cunningham said it was unlikely that a consultant could be engaged and complete the work before October, so he said he could only commit to starting the process.

Book suggested scheduling a joint meeting with the local legislative delegation. Ward pointed out that they won’t be available until after the legislative session ends. 

Disagreement on repealing salary increase, freezing travel expenses

Commissioner Bryan Eastman said commissioners “are not in a place right now” where they can ask the staff to tighten their belts while taking a big salary increase. He added, “I don’t think any of my colleagues here would do anything like this, but the last thing we need is someone taking a trip to Israel or something like that?” He suggested freezing out-of-state travel expenses. Eastman also favored speaking directly to UF about a payment in lieu of taxes instead of going through the legislature.

Chestnut said city commissions have asked UF for financial support “probably going back to 1900… and we haven’t been heard. This may not go anywhere, but this is probably the last straw.”

“The prior commission made a vote for the sustainability of these offices in the future… They were thinking–this job is incredibly difficult, period. It’s incredibly difficult if you are not independently wealthy, come from money, have family money, or are married to money.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Commissioner Reina Saco, who was on personal leave during December when the previous commission voted for the salary increase, said, “I was not here for the initial vote, so I think it’s important that this commission did not vote to give itself anything. The prior commission made a vote for the sustainability of these offices in the future… They were thinking–this job is incredibly difficult, period. It’s incredibly difficult if you are not independently wealthy, come from money, have family money, or are married to money.” She said the previous method of determining salaries made it “exceedingly difficult for the average neighbor to stay in this job” and that she didn’t want future commissioners to be “a bunch of hobbyists or really rich people.”

Commissioner Casey Willits said he had to give up his permanent job in the College of Medicine and move to a part-time position to be able to be a commissioner. He said he lost extensive vacation and sick time by doing that, “and there’s no cashing that out, it’s just gone.” He said he made the decision to cut back to part-time “with the expectation of a salary increase next year” but also said his boss at UF had told him there was no way he could do a full-time job and also serve on the city commission.

He said being a commissioner is not a part-time job, and he had planned to quit his UF job this summer, anticipating the pay increase next January, because “there’s no way I can give it my all when I have to work 20 hours at UF.” He said he would vote no on reversing the salary increase so “people do not have to put their entire life on hold to come serve the people of Gainesville.”

“We should be lobbying for this city. That’s how you get more money… Definitely right now, I can tell you, we put ourselves in a better position to get money for this City by lobbying in Washington, D.C.” – Mayor Ward on travel

Ward disagreed with Eastman’s suggestion to limit out-of-state travel: “There are kinds of travel that we should absolutely limit at this point, if we’re making expeditions to go see how other cities do things, I think that is extremely valuable, but it is the kind of thing that should be restricted. We should be–and we have fallen down on the job, over the last several years– we should be lobbying for this city. That’s how you get more money… Definitely, right now, I can tell you, we put ourselves in a better position to get money for this City by lobbying in Washington, D.C. right now. It is a mistake for us to not do that, and I am not in a position to go out of pocket to do that.” Ward said that is also true of conferences because decision-makers are at those conferences. 

Ward favored delaying the salary increase by a few years instead of repealing the increases and said they should use the letter to JLAC to “make sure they’re aware of our situation–not to say, ‘Lean on our sister institution in our city here to send money,’ but make them absolutely aware of how many acres of our city are not ours, that do not produce, and that we do spend money to support.” Ward said repealing the salary increases would not make a dent in the budget: “It is symbolic.”

Public comment

During public comment, Jo Beaty said that reversing the salary increases would be “a very big show” to the public and to City employees. She said she has watched the job of commissioners turn into a full-time job, and the commissioners did it themselves by creating additional committees and subcommittees. She suggested that commissioners give up their catered meals.

Bobby Mermer agreed that UF should contribute more funds to the City and also supported Saco’s idea of adopting a different method of calculating salaries but not fully repealing the increase. Mermer also suggested that the City ask the legislature to pay for a consultant.

Motion and vote

Book suggested that the City invite representatives from the university to the March 9 General Policy Committee (GPC) meeting.

“Eventually, we are probably going to end up going to the taxpayers for a property [tax] increase. I don’t think we can go to the taxpayers for a property [tax] increase and say to them, ‘We just raised our salaries to $71,000.'” – Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut

Chestnut urged the commissioners to support all three of her recommendations: “Eventually, we are probably going to end up going to the taxpayers for a property [tax] increase. I don’t think we can go to the taxpayers for a property [tax] increase and say to them, ‘We just raised our salaries to $71,000.'” Regarding the number of hours commissioners put in, she said, “This commission has existed as a ‘part-time position’ for as long as we can remember… You make it what you want it to be by the time you put into it, but I don’t think we can put this on the public. We have to set the example… Commissioner Willits, I’m very sorry about the situation, but I have to support it as it is.”

Chestnut said they would not be demanding a payment from UF but asking JLAC for assistance “in trying to get some relief for our taxpayers.”

Ward split the motion into three parts:

  1. Ask the attorney to bring back the salary ordinance as it existed before the most recent increase to commissioner salaries (which becomes effective January 1, 2024). This would keep the salaries where they are now and tie future increases to the Consumer Price Index. The vote was 5-2 in favor of the motion, with Saco and Willits in dissent.
  2. Authorize the mayor to send a letter to JLAC requesting assistance in discussions with the University of Florida and provide regular updates on their progress. That passed unanimously.
  3. Direct the City Manager and the General Manager to review duplicative services and areas of consolidation with the assistance of a third party. That passed unanimously.

Saco: “If I’m going to be paid for 20 hours of work, I will stop working on the 20th hour, and you will be down one commissioner.”

Following the vote, Saco asked staff to bring back information about what it would take to move meetings back to Monday. “If I’m going to be paid for 20 hours of work, I will stop working on the 20th hour, and you will be down one commissioner.” She also asked for information on what it would take to eliminate the two at-large positions on the commission, “which currently cost several hundred thousand dollars in salaries, benefits, support staff, and staff time. If we’re going to lead by example, we should be willing to cut off our entire salaries and our entire positions, as we ask staff to cut positions.”  She said she would put the proposals on the agenda of a future GPC meeting. 

  • Wacko Saco sure is living up to her name. “I thought I was getting a raise, but I’m not, so I’m only going to work half as much now!” How would that work in the real world?? It’s a good thing she’s not having a baby as it would be one baby trying to take care of another.

    • Has she never had a salaried position in the past? The “40 hours” (or in this case 20) is the expected _minimum_, not a maximum.

  • I hope all the commissioners will stop working after 20 hours. I think Sacco’s idea is brilliant.

  • That comes as no surprise to anyone. She hasn’t worked 10 hours as a commissioner during her term so she’s still overpaid. Just another spoiled little POS progressive liberal who hasn’t a clue about responsibilities.

    She’s as much a waste of her daddy’s reproductive juices as she is a waste of taxpayers’ dollars. Too bad her parents didn’t exercise that “choice” while they had the opportunity.

  • I would not have imagine the Wheels would come off so quickly , even with this group. It does not help having a wishy washy Mayor. Gainesville Commissioners and staff have gone Woke and that leads to BROKE .The whiners need to resign now. The Bully City Mangers need to resign now. How could one position cost taxpayers hundreds thousands of dollars? They will never make it to October . There is a New Governor in town and he knows Math. If your are lead by your wallet instead of your heart GO!

  • With the current covid surge I’m glad they’re voluntarily wearing masks.

    • Joe, that’s because the thieves are hoping they won’t be recognized in public.

    • Joe: surely you jest. The face masks are a psychological thing developed & implemented by the Chinese to scare people to stay away and hence the social distancing. The WEF said the pandemic was the perfect cover to implement the great reset. Stop pushing the “big lie” like Saco. Saco should be your reverse barometer…she’s a useless big hunk of fascist Marxist new world order crap. No wonder our city is bankrupt and Desantis will have to appoint new commissioners and GRU will be taken over with a utility authority by the State. Democrat leadership ruined our city & utility with debt trying to implement UN Climate change, woke sh!t, & new world order great reset agenda.

      • Wow Loud! You probably also think Trump is still President and Kari Lake is Arizona governor.

  • Those liberal commissioners, especially Willets the Weasel and Wacko Saco, have never worked full-time as a commissioner. The only reason Willets went part-time at UF is because he didn’t want to work full-time there and figured he could get double the salary for half the time at the city. Wacko Saco knew what she signed up for. Tell Saco to go get a job with law degree. No one is going to start her at $80k a year and she’s a bigger fool than we think she is if she believes that.
    How many of you working taxpayers of Gainesville can go tell your boss since you aren’t making $80k a year you’re not going to work 40 hours a week?
    Just what I thought…crickets. Next election cycle, remember they put they’re whining little asses’ selfishness and greed before doing what you elected them to do.

    Time to stop being so gullible.

  • Every commissioner RAN for public office on their own volition. None were forced. If they don’t like the pay then they may resign and WILL NOT BE MISSED.

    • Exactly, it’s supposed to be public service not personal enrichment.

  • Saco only knows about self-described victimized privilege, she wouldn’t recognize work if it was stuffed up . . . whatever.

  • Oh, cry me a river. ‘

    Who’s worked a standard 40 hours a week in many years. I am salary. You know what that means? It means a 60 hour week paid for 40.

    You are a leader as an elected official.

    Act like one.

  • If Wacko Saco follows through & we’re ‘down a commissioner’ and it’s her- that would be a major victory for the citizens of Gainesville. Addition by subtraction- no question about it.
    Still a long way to go, but that would be a fantastic start!

  • Anybody drawing a city salary connected to equity and diversity should be promptly fired. These are just virtue signaling positions which bleed the taxpayers but provide nothing useful except appeasement of woke idiots and bloodsuckers. All that should matter is merit — either you have ability and can prove it or you take a hike. It is just not “equitable” to have a staff of high paid leeches to perform perfunctory BS tasks when simple application of merit-based hiring etc., will get the job done and ensure fairness. Translation services should also be eliminated. Why should I have to pay for some border jumping illegal migrant to be able to communicate in his or her Spanish lingo when they can and should learn to speak English in America? Come here legally, learn to speak our language, assimilate properly, and you are most welcome — otherwise, get lost!

    • Paco: I agree with your comment 100%…well said! Also, my iPhone can translate at no cost to taxpayers.

      • What incentive is there to assimilate as an American when morons such as the retards on the city commission keep catering to immigrants who don’t have to learn English? They can speak their native Spanish language back in Latin America where they come from. Our country, its language and its culture is being destroyed from within by foreign termites who are eating away at the supporting beams. Saco & Company are essentially a bunch of termites.

  • My guess is once word of her lack of commitment hits the governor’s ears, he’ll be looking for someone who will demonstrate commitment to improving the city. Not some child looking to benefit her piggy bank.

  • Saco has a wrist cast thing and a face diaper on…what a mess. —If the CC was serious, they would do away with DEI and GRU needs to stop with anything that’s going to triple our debt like “net 0 by 2045”. Just worry about Gainesville and not a turtle on the other side of the world with a plastic straw in its nose. Anything to stop climate change, anything with the word “sustainable” in it, anything from the United Nations or “great reset” gets the sh!tcan.

  • Governor please step in and stop this madness. From the commissioners and mayor to the overpaid city manager and the overpaid diversity management.
    No questions, just go away!

  • Every last one of them can stop working period! Do the citizens a favor instead of screwing them blind.

  • Per Saco: …she didn’t want future commissioners to be “a bunch of hobbyists or really rich people.”

    Hmmm… doesn’t being inclusive include others? I don’t care what background you come from… are you qualified to do the job? It appears that the majority of our current commissioners (and recent past) aren’t qualified at all, hence the mess the city is in financially.

  • I’d include a tiny-violin image here for Saco if I could. There are students at UF who go to school full time while working one or more jobs.

    • 🎻👌🏼 *playing the world’s smallest violin… hope that helps 🙂

  • Libs are like spoiled children…..it’s all about them. Whatever happened to elected officials SERVING for the public good? Selfish loser.

  • Saco ran for office willing to work full time while aware of commission salary. Now she’s only promising to working part-time?

    • Sounds like there should be a recall election. According to Ballotpedia, Florida requires a reason and there are seven allowable grounds:

      They are “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, and conviction of a felony involving moral turpitude.”

      “Neglect of duty” means failing to perform some work, duty, or act; or intentional refusal, indifference, or unwillingness to perform one’s duty. Sounds spot on to me–she is saying she will quit working at 20 hours regardless of whether she has performed her duty.

      https://ballotpedia.org/Laws_governing_recall_in_Florida

  • Why’s Wacko-Saco wearing a wrist/hand brace? Middle finger hypertension perhaps? From over-use?

  • She wouldn’t be worth what she’s being paid if she put both feet in the air.

  • If she’s so dedicated to helping the community and she’s a member of the bar, one would think she would offer Pro Bono legal assistance to the oppressed.

    She won’t, she’s a lying, self-serving hypocrite.

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