BY JENNIFER CABRERA / SEPTEMBER 25, 2019
Gainesville City Commissioner Gail Johnson ran on promises to make life better for those on the east side of Gainesville. In her article published in the Gainesville Sun before the election, she said, “Affordable housing is a passion of mine and I’ll work to ensure it exists across our community” and “Many times it feels like decisions happen to us, without the feedback and input of the community. Before any vote occurs, I will make sure that all stakeholders are able to express their input in the decision.”
However, she is now singularly focused on her equity initiative, which will require two new employees at City Hall (with no job descriptions, as far as we can tell, except to make sure every decision the city makes takes equity into account) and $300,000 per year to be used by the Race and Equity Advisory Board. After several meetings of the Race and Equity Subcommittee (a subcommittee of the city commission, made up of 4 city commissioners), it is clear that the only things they have the power to do are to increase wages for those who work for the city and try to change the demographics of city employees to match the area’s demographics. They have mentioned that the citizen advisory board should not have any barriers that prevent them from coming to meetings, so the money could be used to provide child care or meals during meetings. The amount of $300,000/year was agreed upon with absolutely no discussion, and it has not been justified in any detail. The budgeted total of these initiatives comes to $470,000/year.
During the July 18 Gainesville City Commission meeting, Commissioner Johnson voted against increasing the property tax millage rate, arguing that she wanted a a different split between revenue for general government from property taxes and for GRU from utility rates. Commissioners Ward, Simmons, and Arreola also voted against the increase, and they have continued to vote against all the tax and utility rate increases since that date.
But after the vote failed, Mayor Poe seemed frustrated. He called a 15-minute recess and then lectured the commission about their failure to pass the revenue ordinances that were necessary to support all the new increments they’ve added to the budget this year, most of which were passed unanimously. He specifically mentioned the equity staff positions, and after Poe’s speech, Johnson changed her vote, apparently getting the message that funds for her equity initiative could be cut if she voted against the revenue ordinances.
In the September 12 budget meeting, many residents of East Gainesville begged the commission to not increase utility rates and property taxes, but Commissioner Johnson voted for all of the increases. If citizens want the commission to reconsider their budget, there is little to be gained from addressing any commissioner except Johnson. It seems clear that Poe, Hayes-Santos, and Warren will continue to vote for the increases, and Ward, Arreola, and Simmons have consistently voted against them.
Citizens should focus on Johnson, specifically reminding her that utility rates, property taxes, and fire assessment fees all directly contribute to the cost of housing (although citizens can’t address comments to her at the meeting, they can call her office, email her, or remind the commission that she ran on these issues and that all of them have spoken about the importance of affordable housing).
If affordable housing is truly a passion of hers, and if she is truly interested in the input of the community, she should listen to the citizens who are begging her to stand firm against an increase in the cost of housing that is completely within her control, as the swing vote. Increases in wages or better jobs will not make a difference for the retired people in East Gainesville, who will be forced to pay more for their housing so that Johnson can travel to conferences and tell people that Gainesville is on the cutting edge in equity. It’s not clear who will benefit from the equity initiative (except the two new administrative employees who will be hired), but it is clear that the vast majority of Johnson’s constituents will see nothing but an increase in their housing costs.