HomeLocal government“I didn’t open it; I just didn’t want to know”: Gainesville City Commission reduces water connection charges for very small houses, discusses property tax notices
“I didn’t open it; I just didn’t want to know”: Gainesville City Commission reduces water connection charges for very small houses, discusses property tax notices
August 24, 2023
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At today’s General Policy Committee (GPC) meeting, the Gainesville City Commission voted to reduce water/wastewater connection charges on new homes under 850 square feet; they also discussed low-income housing that is falling into disrepair and the TRIM notices arriving in residents’ mailboxes.
Water/wastewater connection fees
Mayor Harvey Ward places an agenda item on every GPC agenda so the commission can discuss the transition to the Authority that is scheduled to take over governance of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) on October 4, but Ward was clearly reluctant to discuss the issue today, saying, “I would remind everyone that this next item–if we don’t have anything, we don’t have to do it.”
But Commissioner Bryan Eastman said he understood that GRU had some information about a request he had made to look at reducing water/wastewater connection fees on small houses.
GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham said that if the commission voted on the change today, it could still go into the Fiscal Year 2024 budget; Rick Hutton, from GRU’s Sustainability Office, told the commission that connection fees are designed to make new construction pay for itself.
Hutton said that when GRU looked at usage by home size a few years ago, they found that houses under 1,400 square feet use less water than houses over that size, so in response to Eastman’s request, they looked to see whether another tier below that could be established, maybe for accessory dwelling units. Hutton said residences under about 850 square feet use significantly less water than the 1,400-square-foot home, so it makes sense to make the connection charges lower.
Commissioner Casey Willits said he supported the change because “it shows a commitment to understanding that there are barriers, and we can control some of those barriers in what is still a housing crisis.”
Ward pointed out that this would reduce the cost of building an 850-square-foot home by about $1,600.
Eastman made a motion to direct staff to draft an ordinance reducing water/wastewater connection fees for homes under 850 square feet, and Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut seconded the motion.
Commissioner Ed Book asked whether this would affect the budget, and Cunningham said they typically have a small number of new homes in that size range, so “it’s a very small difference in our projected revenue.”
The motion passed unanimously. After the vote, City Attorney Daniel Nee said that staff won’t be bringing back an ordinance as directed in the motion because the change will instead appear in Appendix A of the budget, which will be presented to the commission on September 7.
Gainesville Housing Authority and deteriorating housing stock
During commission comment, Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said she was concerned about a lack of response to her requests for information from Gainesville Housing Authority (GHA). She was also concerned that several of GHA’s apartments had fallen into disrepair and that two of them are going to be razed. Duncan-Walker said, “If [GHA is] going to partner, the first thing they have to do is be responsive… But beyond that, I want us really to start thinking about what this partnership means. What do we really want from them?”
Duncan-Walker said she had recently received complaints from people living in GHA units about mold and a lack of responses to complaints: “If we are fronting money, and if we are putting our support behind this agency, there needs to be a level of accountability… I want us to build in certain requirements of them to make sure that we are preserving that stock of housing and that the residents are getting what they need.”
Duncan-Walker said the lack of responsiveness from GHA began when she showed a picture of a building with a hole in it, and that hole is still there. She said she would like some entity within the City to “take an inventory of the state of housing at Housing Authority. I want to know what is going on… I don’t want to see an apartment complex leveled that’s providing housing for the most vulnerable and replaced with housing that will not include them, or does not include the same amount of them. That’s not going to help our houselessness population at all.”
Property tax bills: “Go look at your TRIM”
Commissioner Casey Willits said he had received his TRIM (Truth in Millage) notice, and the fire assessment fee for his “very, very modest condo” has an “over 100%” increase in the fire assessment fee: “So I want that to be known, what we did–and I voted against it multiple times.”
Chestnut said she hadn’t looked at her TRIM notice: “I didn’t open it. I just didn’t want to know.”
Willits continued, “We have done a double whammy on people who live in multi-family over a certain size of square footage under one roof… People who live in single-family standalone homes are paying less, literally less, and people in multi-family are paying more, and in some cases, more than 100% more, just on that portion… Go look at your TRIM.”
“They want us to feel pain, and people are going to feel pain, but we made a decision that people who live in multi-family housing will feel even more pain, and I’m disappointed with that decision.” – Commissioner Casey Willits
Willits said the commission had increased the fire assessment fee because they wanted more of the funding for fire services to come from the fire assessment fee, but he said the decision had also been made “with a real force from the Joint Legislative Audit Committee and those kind of threats. They want us to feel pain, and people are going to feel pain, but we made a decision that people who live in multi-family housing will feel even more pain, and I’m disappointed with that decision.”
Ward responded that what stood out to him on the TRIM notice was that “the City of Gainesville continues to be the third most expensive item on the tax bill. The honors still go to Alachua County and the School Board.”
Eastman said he recently became a Regal Unlimited member, “so I go see as many movies as I want to see; that cost a little bit more than how much I’m paying for police, fire, parks–I was surprised, actually, how good of a deal–as a single-family homeowner with a fairly large homestead exemption… I was surprised at how good of a deal it was to be a resident of the city of Gainesville for everything that we get out of that.” Eastman has a $50,000 homestead exemption on his home, double the standard exemption.
No other commissioners seemed to be interested in revisiting the fire assessment fee.
Commissioner Ed Book said he had attended a recent meeting at Pine Ridge, and he observed many units in disrepair, with tarped roofs, trash and debris, and properties that are not well-maintained. He said he was planning to send a letter on his letterhead to all the owners in that neighborhood and “see if we can get some traction for some improvement there, for the people who live there.”
Ward said efforts have been made over many years in Pine Ridge, but few owners have been interested in the resources that were offered. He said Phoenix and the SWAG area have similar issues, as neighborhoods with many different individual owners, and have had “the same results… If [the owners] don’t pick up the slack and do what they’re supposed to do for that rent check that they get every month, we don’t see the longer-term improvement.”
City Manager Cynthia Curry said the City has worked to listen to and respond to concerns at Pine Ridge, but “it’s always been a problem, at least for the last 18 months that I’ve been here.”
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