Gainesville General Policy Committee considers funding requests for Empowerment Zone Learning Center, language translation services

Commissioner Reina Saco tells the committee that $500k is “the absolute minimum” owed to immigrants in the community


Bottom line: Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut was upset that two of her agenda items were removed from the agenda at the last minute, and the commission voted to ask staff to find “up to $500k” start-up funding for GNV4ALL’s Empowerment Zone Learning Center and find “up to $500k” to get Spanish language translation services started between now and October 1, 2022. Commissioner Reina Saco said she was “not going to be polite” about the need for funding for translation services and anyone who thought the cost was too high might as well just tell her to “get on a boat and go home.”

Chestnut upset over removal of her items from the agenda

Before Mayor Lauren Poe could even introduce the agenda at the May 26 City of Gainesville General Policy Committee (GPC) meeting, Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut asked to speak about the agenda. Following the cancellation of the May 19 City Commission meeting because at least three commissioners tested positive for COVID-19, Poe had shifted items from that agenda onto the GPC agenda and shifted some GPC items to future meetings. Two of the postponed items were Chestnut’s proposal for a study of a sports complex at 8th and Waldo and a 6-month progress update for the interim charter officers. 

Chestnut said, “Mr. Mayor and fellow commissioners, I was deeply offended to learn through the grapevine that you removed my two items from today’s agenda without even the courtesy of notification to me. Offended is not the appropriate word. I was deeply hurt that you would take such action in my absence, remove my items, but keep all of your items on the agenda. All of your items… I am deeply hurt for the people in east Gainesville that once again our priority, our issue, is deferred… Such is the plight of the people in east Gainesville, my people and your people.”

She continued, “To defer this to June 2nd, when I’m not even sure that meeting or any meeting in June will take place, as the Mayor and Commissioner Hayes-Santos will be touring Iraq—you might say I should have been at the agenda review, and I would have, had I not been at my husband’s hospital bedside since Sunday, but I didn’t think it was necessary because surely my colleagues would honor the items I placed on the agenda… I think that’s quite disrespectful.”

Don't Miss a Post!

She made a motion to return the items to the agenda. Poe responded, “I want to sincerely apologize to you. I think you know me well enough, Commissioner, that nothing was done with any intent of offense.” He said he was trying to do the best he could with the “unfortunate circumstances we have before us” and that all the commissioners planned to be at the June 2 meeting. Poe added that he thought the commission would have more time to discuss them on June 2 “as opposed to this meeting, which had a very packed agenda.”

Commissioner David Arreola said they should have “patience with each other and move forward as unified as we can.”

Poe asked Chestnut if she would agree to moving the items to the end of the meeting and then continuing them to June 2 if there wasn’t time to discuss them fully, and she agreed. 

Empowerment Zone Learning Center

Various funding requests came before the committee, including a request from James Lawrence from GNV4ALL for $500,000 for the Empowerment Zone Learning Center. Lawrence said the project is intended to “deal with the problem of the achievement gap that’s worsening between black and white students in this county.” Lawrence said GNV4ALL needs “the help and the resources of all segments of the community, the schools, government, businesses, they all need to come together. And we are the vehicle for that to happen.” He said the funding will enable the group to “pay our teachers better than what some zoo keepers are making who are taking care of kids. I mean, that’s a travesty in itself, the mere fact that you can go take care of animals and be better paid than what some teachers are making.” He said they plan to have “a top-quality curricula” and “top-notch playground equipment and furniture and all of those things that many of our kids are not getting right now.”

The full annual budget of the center is projected to be $1.2 million at full capacity of 67 children (which comes to over $17k per child). Lawrence said, “We don’t want to demonstrate cramming kids into a classroom, so that costs money… It’s an investment for the future.”

Commissioner Harvey Ward pointed out that the City just funded a grant for Head Start about a block away from the proposed center for $400k and asked about funding from the Children’s Trust. Lawrence said they hadn’t heard back yet from the Children’s Trust. Ward said he would also like to see the Alachua County Commission participate financially because the children will not all live in the city limits of Gainesville. 

Poe said, “$500,000 is significant. We have a budget deficit coming up in the next budget year.” Lawrence replied, “We have a significant problem in this community.” Poe said he understood that, but the commission needed to “have a discussion on our budget before we start making promises.” He suggested that commissioners add it to the list of budget increments and then make a decision in their budget discussions. 

Commissioner David Arreola said that “ideally, of course, the State of Florida would fund this, but we know that Tallahassee has different priorities in the legislature, unfortunately.” He suggested authorizing negotiations between City staff and Lawrence’s organization and encouraging the County to also fund the project. 

Commissioner Reina Saco said she was “thinking of this as, like, a steward of the City’s money… I agree teachers should be paid more than a lot of other professions because they are raising children for us… I hesitate at the City providing 20% of the funding in perpetuity as operational funds for 67 children. And I’m not saying those 67 children do not matter. I am saying we are often faced with budgetary issues, and where we often choose to put our funds is where it is most impactful, where it will impact the most number of people.” She agree with asking staff to evaluate the proposal, and she wanted “everyone – I mean the school board and the County at a bare minimum” to participate in funding the project.

Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry said that she had spoken extensively with Lawrence, and the need was for one-time start-up funds in “a range starting from $300,000.”

Chestnut made a motion to direct staff to work with GNV4ALL in locating American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding of up to $500,000 as a start-up commitment for the Gainesville Empowerment Center. Arreola seconded the motion. The motion passed unanimously, with Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker absent.

Tempers rise during discussion of funding for language translation

Later in the meeting, the committee heard an update on the Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion (GINI) Initiative. Interim Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Director Zeriah Folston said he had several immediate requests: Stand the language translation line back up; Add a position to directly handle the initiative; $350k to $500k in funding for those two things plus a list of other smaller requests, including an Inclusion and Sensitivity Training Program. He said the initial request was only for Spanish translations and that City staff have already started identifying documents and signs to be translated into Spanish. He said that ARPA funding could be used at the beginning, and he didn’t want to wait until the new fiscal year in October to get started. He wanted to get started right away on the Inclusion and Sensitivity training for front-line workers, putting out a job description for the new position, and the language translation line.

Saco said it would be “appropriate” to spend up to 500k to help “10, 15% of our population… I don’t know what 15% of 140,000 is, but several thousand people. I’m fine with that.”

The previous presentation on Gainesville’s immigrant population said that as of 2019, 11.3% of Gainesville’s population is made up of immigrants, and about 3% of Gainesville’s population has been in the U.S. for less than 5 years. No information has been presented about how many residents of Gainesville do not speak English; many students, faculty, and staff at the University of Florida are immigrants who speak English on a daily basis. 

Saco added, “It’s not just one department that we want folks to access; it’s everything. The one that came to mind is car seat safety lessons. Here’s a car seat, here’s how you do it. That can be done in Spanish. A lot of things like that, that aren’t being offered, now we hopefully can, and offer all of those services and benefits to everyone, equally, without discrimination, even if it’s unintended discrimination.”

Curry said the City currently has about $2.7 million in unallocated ARPA funds that they could use to fund the $350k-$500k that is needed through the end of September, 2022, “but it is important to also be reminded that this is going to be recurring as well, and increased as it assumes a full year of operating.”

Saco said, “I understand the cost of it. It’s also the cost of serving 15% of people who contribute to our community. I’m sure they contribute more than we would be spending on this… What we can’t do is nothing.” She made a motion to approve the time line and action plan presented by Folston and “earmark up to $500,000 for its implementation.” Arreola seconded the motion.

Chestnut asked that other entities in the community, such as the County and school board, should also contribute funding, just as Saco had recommended for the GNV4ALL initiative. She wanted to be clear that they were only funding the program for the next fiscal year, but Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos pointed out, “Once you start funding a recurring thing, it’s hard to stop.” Both the new full-time position and the language line will be ongoing expenses. Hayes-Santos was concerned about approving this without knowing what the next year’s budget request would be for the initiative. 

Arreola said that hiring the new person will be a “good incremental step… If we’re being responsible about it, the return is 10-fold at the end of the day.” Ward said that if the City doesn’t get the County, school board, and County Constitutional Officers on board, “we’re going to be very disappointed where we end up.”

“There are many, many things I would cut from our budget to make sure this can happen.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

Poe said he wanted to “go back to the why… 15% of the people who live in our city and we call our neighbors, were not born in the United States, they were born somewhere else and chose to come here. Some out of duress, some escaping extreme violence and unlivable conditions, some because they have loss of opportunity and this is where they chose to end up, and so they’re our neighbors and they’re entitled to every benefit our City offers, regardless of how long they’ve been here… They need to be able to interact and access and engage regardless of their native language or their English-speaking capacity… Not only will it help us serve them better, but we will become a stronger and more vibrant organization… I agree that we need to scrutinize new elements to our budget. There are many, many things I would cut from our budget to make sure this can happen.”

Poe agreed that it was important for other entities to participate, but “we can set an example… we can sort of be a model for how all those others do it.”

“15% of the people who live in this city do not have access to the City, and if that is going to cost up to $500,000, that is the least, the absolute minimum… that’s what they are owed as a bare minimum for the taxes they put into this city. For what they contribute to this community. For what they get for cleaning your houses, growing your food, raising your children, and to say that people like me need to prove a return on investment and the cost may be too high, I mean, just tell me to get on a boat and go home.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Saco said, “I’m not going to be polite about this. Someone asked us to fund $500,000 for state-of-the-art playgrounds and other things, and we were all ready to jump on board for that and help fund them in the future, when we hadn’t seen a financial plan for that. 15% of people – and I know they can’t vote for you. But 15% of the people who live in this city do not have access to the City, and if that is going to cost up to $500,000, that is the least, the absolute minimum… that’s what they are owed as a bare minimum for the taxes they put into this city. For what they contribute to this community. For what they get for cleaning your houses, growing your food, raising your children, and to say that people like me need to prove a return on investment and the cost may be too high, I mean, just tell me to get on a boat and go home… I don’t care how much this would cost, if we’re going to talk about duty and the oaths we took.”

Chestnut said she hadn’t heard anyone asking for $500,000 for a playground, and Saco said to her, “Mr. Lawrence… he said that, he did say that… Do not tell me what I didn’t hear and what was not said because you have already turned my words around twice.” Poe tried to pull the two commissioners back to the current agenda item.

Poe asked Robyn Lewy of the Rural Women’s Health Project to give her perspective, and she said, “I think what’s really important is to lay out a reminder of who our community is. So we’re hearing reference to 10 to 15% of the community. Those are people that are running UF Health at Shands, those that do essential services as well. Many of those are U.S. Citizens, have been naturalized, so they’re voters as well. We’re looking at a broad swath of individuals.” She said that both the school district and the County are also moving forward with providing services to non-English speakers.

Folston clarified that he was asking for $350k-$500k to be used before October 1, 2022, to get started with language translation and hire the new employee. Poe said that since the new employee probably won’t be hired until September 1, they could probably modify the motion to find up to $250,000, but Saco vehemently disagreed: “But that wasn’t my motion. My motion was to earmark it, have space in the budget, because he will come back with money that it will cost, and we will need to have it set aside in the budget.” Poe said there were two things: the money for this fiscal year, and a budget increment for the FY23 budget. Saco said she just wanted to make sure they didn’t lose sight of the need for a FY23 budget increment.

Folston asked them to add two things to the motion: providing training on the language line and funds to hire a consultant for training for “forward-facing” people on how to be sensitive to immigrants. Those two things were added to the motion.

The motion passed unanimously, with Duncan-Walker absent.


Leave a Reply