BY LEN CABRERA / JUNE 27, 2019
The local paper continues to prove it’s a PR firm for the Gainesville City Commission. A column on June 12th defended the city’s decision to increase property taxes, utility rates, and the fire assessment fee. The next day, they ran a human-interest story on Gainesville High School students who essentially echoed all of the city commission’s pet projects: east side development, food deserts, policing, etc.
The Sun (and Mayor Poe) are basically using these kids as props. The same people who don’t think adults under 21 should be trusted to purchase rifles or tobacco want us to believe that these kids have some sort of special insight into running a city.
The current city government was elected by a pathetic 13% turnout. Rather than acknowledge that they represent a small fraction of the community, the commission is racing to enact drastic changes to the city government and embed a new administrative bureaucracy to make their changes permanent. They call them “equity directors,” but they’re really just political commissars to ensure that city employees toe the party line; these new full-time staff positions will also keep the current commission’s policies in place, should the citizens of Gainesville wise up and replace them. If “political commissars” is too harsh a term, how about “deep state”?
The main reason the city is facing a budget problem is the rampant spending by the commission, which seems to add new full-time-equivalent positions at every meeting (16.5 for FY20 at a cost of $1.2 million, on top of the 20+ new maintenance positions to replace the work currently done by prison labor). Hilariously, The Sun column says “one can also debate whether the city should do more belt-tightening.” More? This statement is intended to make the city commission seem responsible and measured in their policies. In fact, they haven’t done any belt-tightening, with the exception of cutting pension payments by $790,000. (If a private company did that, they’d be in legal trouble, and The Sun would vilify them.) The column admits this point three paragraphs later without the dollar amount, probably hoping readers wouldn’t get that far.
The Sun provides cover for the city commission, saying, “local government is being asked to do more.” There is no evidence to back up that claim. Most policies involve some form of education (re-education?) program (plastic is bad, fresh food is good, etc.). If you have to educate the vast unwashed, there’s not a big push for these policies.
While laying the blame for increased spending on this mythical demand, The Sun also echoes every incompetent commission’s lament of “so much land off the tax rolls.” The column itself admits that GRU will transfer $38 million to the city. Given that GRU only has about 10% of the landmass of the City of Gainesville (6.8 of 63.5 square miles), most cities would gladly give up those property taxes for the $38M.
Consider a city of comparable size. Coral Springs has roughly the same population (130,000) as Gainesville, and the cities have similar budgets: Coral Springs (p11) has $128 million general fund and $242 million operating budget; Gainesville (p10) has $126 million general fund and $276 million operating budget (not counting the pension fund). Yet Coral Springs only collects $57 million in property taxes, compared to Gainesville’s $68 million in combined property taxes and GRU transfer.
While the city (and county) constantly complain about the lack of property taxes, they both benefit from huge employers that bring millions of dollars into the community. The University of Florida employs over 27,000 people and has a budget of roughly $3 billion (Chief Operating Office Charlie Lane recently said the budget is $6 billion, which may include the Athletic Association and UF Health). In addition, UF just announced a plan to add $2.2 billion in capital improvements over the next five to ten years. UF Health employs over 12,000 people and has about $1.4 billion in operating expenses. By contrast, Coral Springs’ largest employer is the Broward County Schools (p15).
The original Sun column that started this rant said the GRU transfer is “funded in part by ratepayers outside city limits.” Since we’re approaching Independence Day, this would be a good time to review The Declaration of Independence. One of the 27 grievances was taxation without representation (“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent”).
GRU serves the roughly 100,000 residents of unincorporated Alachua County. Their utility rates are determined by the Gainesville city commission (which has also micromanaged GRU into near bankruptcy), yet these residents have no say on who serves on the commission. If fact, GRU customers outside the city of Gainesville pay more for their utilities: a 10% surcharge for electric and gas and 25% for water and wastewater.
Lack of honest representation is nothing new for Gainesville or the city commission. Three of the seven city commissioners are elected “at large,” so they are elected by the entire city, rather than a specific geographic area. This undermines the concept of representative government because less densely-populated areas are controlled by the majority in the more densely-populated areas. If the commission had all seven seats broken out geographically, they would likely have more diverse views represented and wouldn’t vote in lock-step. Note that the county commission and school board also have their members elected “at large” rather than by the residents of the corresponding districts. This allows the city of Gainesville (roughly 50% of the population of the county) to exert more influence than it would if members were elected by their districts.
The Sun won’t point out any of this because it’s too busy running interference for the city commission. You’d think they would be shamed by NY Times owner A.G. Sulzberger’s words in last week’s Wall Street Journal editorial: “America’s founders believed that a free press was essential to democracy and the American experience has proved them right. Journalism guards freedoms, binds together communities, ferrets out corruption and injustice, and ensures the flow of information that powers everything from elections to the economy.”
Then again, Sulzberger’s editorial conveniently ignored his own paper’s commission of the faults he was ascribing to Trump. Apparently newspapers only ferret out corruption and bring “truth to power” when the press doesn’t agree with the power.