County commission looks at budget requests from Community Support Services and City of Gainesville
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
The Alachua County Commission Special Meeting on Thursday, August 6, discussed the proposed budgets for Fire Rescue, Community Support Services, Court Services, and Animal Services. They also added a chair letter regarding the Nestle water permit to the consent agenda. The water management district will meet on Tuesday to consider the permit. The letter was not part of the meeting’s agenda and does not appear to be available to the public, but the County Manager said it was similar to previous letters that have expressed concerns about the permit.
Fire Rescue didn’t have any budget enhancement requests; they are in the second year of a three-year salary agreement.
Court Services also had no requests for increases. While the commission discussed adding some funds for increased video conferencing abilities or better remote-monitoring abilities, they agreed that CARES Act or FEMA funds could be used for those things if needed because they are directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Community Support Services had a few budget requests. First, the Healthcare Advisory Board requested that the CHOICES Trust Fund be reviewed and “shored up.” Commissioner Mike Byerly, however, pointed out that the funds originally came from a local option sales tax that was approved by the voters; he thought that if the fund needed more money, that should be voted on by the citizens. The fund currently has about $7.3 million and will be depleted in about 8 years at current spending levels (about $800,000 per year). The CHOICES Board wanted the County to add 10% of their budget ($80,000) to next year’s budget and increase that by another $80k per year until the program was fully funded.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also submitted a budget request for three new programs to support inmates at the Alachua County Jail who are suffering from mental illness.
The County Manager pointed out that all these requests were outside the normal budgetary process. Byerly said that he wanted staff to look at all the requests before they made any decisions and added that he was reluctant to add any new initiatives to the budget this year, especially since they already decided to go with the rollback rate for property taxes. Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said she understood that concern but that nearly everyone is dealing with mental health issues as we continue through the COVID-19 situation. Commissioner Chuck Chestnut also supported having staff vet the proposals.
The City of Gainesville also had a budget request for $116,549.50 to continue to fund a transitional campground related to the closure of Dignity Village. Approximately 60 people are still living in tents inside the fence at Grace Marketplace.
Moving on to Animal Services, that department is being shifted under the umbrella of Public Safety but didn’t have any new budget requests.
As they wrapped up the meeting, the commissioners discussed whether to ask staff to analyze the various requests. Byerly said he had no interest in looking at the request from the City of Gainesville. Regarding the others, he said he was in favor of looking at mental health and health services, but only in the context of how to best address the various issues, not as a response to an organization that sent a letter. He thought it was too late in the budget cycle to do a proper analysis. He added, regarding the NAMI request, “By the way, Hutch, if you are on the board, you probably should be distancing yourself from this rather than advocating for it.”
Cornell agreed with Byerly that he wasn’t interested in looking at the request from the City of Gainesville, but he wanted more information about the other two requests.
In response to Byerly, Commission Chair Hutchinson said, “With respect to NAMI, I was not aware they were bringing this forward because I missed the last board meeting, maybe the last two board meetings. I have been a NAMI board member for five or six years. And that’s one of the ways that I’m active in mental health issues in the community. And it’s a completely unpaid position, voluntary. I serve on 12 boards and committees in this community, including the Community Foundation – we deal with all of those agencies as well. I don’t see any way to disentangle myself from the fact that I’m involved directly in a lot of community efforts.”
Hutchinson said he’d just gotten a message from the Supervisor of Elections saying they need to replace their alternate on the Canvassing Board, and the commission selected Chestnut to that position.
Kudos for not addressing the City’s request. Maybe they can use the money they do not want to contribute to the police helicopters to make up the difference.