“If we were in that situation, do you think they would do the same for us?”: County Commission discusses picking up the City’s share on joint projects
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – During an Alachua County Commission policy discussion on Tuesday morning, the commissioners discussed how they might respond if the City of Gainesville decides they can no longer fund their share of joint projects.
Commissioner Ken Cornell put the discussion on the agenda and introduced it by saying that the board should provide direction to the County Manager about their willingness to pick up the City’s part of any joint projects that get cut from the City’s budget; the City of Gainesville is facing significant budget cuts after the Joint Legislative Audit Committee told them to take “drastic action” on reducing the debt of Gainesville Regional Utilities.
Cornell said the board should have a policy “that says, ‘City of Gainesville, we’ve got a lot of great joint projects together.’ If you all decide to discontinue one… then that means, from my perspective, that joint project goes away, and now we now have to look at that and re-prioritize our existing budget, based on what they are doing.”
Cornell said his preference would be to ask staff to compile a list of all the joint projects with the City so the board can discuss whether these projects fit into the strategic priorities of the County if the City decides not to fund them in future years: “We are counties, they are cities. We have different roles. Counties… don’t do municipal services.” Cornell said he is “very empathetic” to the City’s budget issues, but that didn’t mean they could pick up the City’s share of joint projects.
Commissioner Charles “Chuck” Chestnut said, “I don’t want to go there, but I’m going to have to. I feel that we all have a fiduciary responsibility as elected officials… and we have a responsibility to also look at our Manager and all of that to make sure that these folks are doing what they are supposed to be doing, looking out for our financial interests, also looking to make sure that we stay stable.”
“So now it’s caught up with them.” – Commissioner Chuck Chestnut
Chestnut continued, “Well, the situation across the street is different to me, in a sense. The City has a slush fund, which was the transfer from GRU of 35 or 40, whatever the number is, million [dollars] a year. And what they decided to do was to keep their millage rate low and use that to make the difference in their budget. So now it’s caught up with them.” Chestnut said he thought the City should keep their commitments to the County on joint projects but that he didn’t mind looking at individual projects.
However, Chestnut said, “The reason we’re at this juncture now is because I don’t think people took their responsibility as elected officials to be more concerned about the fiduciary responsibility of their roles as elected officials, to make sure things like this does not happen. You got me?”
“I just think that they need to get their financial house in order first… But if we were in that situation, do you think they would do the same thing for us? That’s the question.” – Commissioner Chuck Chestnut
Chestnut said the City’s budget situation is “their situation. They created that. We did not. So if we have a joint agreement to fund certain things, I think that their obligation’s in their budget to make sure they meet those joint obligations with the City and the County, period. That’s how I feel about it.” He said he didn’t mind helping them out, “but I just think that they need to get their financial house in order first… But if we were in that situation, do you think they would do the same thing for us? That’s the question.”
“When you have a private utility, you have dividends, and you pay those dividends to your shareholders. We are the shareholders in the city of Gainesville… So the dividend goes to our City, and they use it to provide amazing services to our community.” – Chair Anna Prizzia
Chair Anna Prizzia replied, “When you have a private utility, you have dividends, and you pay those dividends to your shareholders. We are the shareholders in the city of Gainesville… So the dividend goes to our City, and they use it to provide amazing services to our community. I’m not going to get into the way that they have chosen to do rates or any of the details about how they run GRU. I don’t want to get into that. But the fact that people call it a general transfer and act like the City of Gainesville is taking money from GRU and somehow just, like, slush-funding their city, I think that’s a wrong-headed way to look at it. I think we need to look at it just the way the for-profit industry for power looks at it. That’s our dividend as shareholders–and we’re lucky, as a public, that we have a public utility and we are the shareholders of the utility and not some private corporation that’s going to take those dividends and move them into the pockets of rich people to do whatever they want, to buy their yachts or whatever else it is they want to do with it.”
“I think what I hear Commissioner Cornell saying is that those programs are now on the chopping block because our dividend, as shareholders, is being called into question by JLAC and the legislature right now, who ultimately, in my opinion, has a goal of privatizing our utility.” – Chair Anna Prizzia
Prizzia continued, “We get to control those dividends and how they get spent in our community by electing the people who oversee our utility… And the fact that those dividends come back to us in the form of programs is really, really important. And I think what I hear Commissioner Cornell saying is that those programs are now on the chopping block because our dividend, as shareholders, is being called into question by JLAC and the legislature right now, who ultimately, in my opinion, has a goal of privatizing our utility. That’s their ultimate goal… I can guarantee you, if it goes to the private sector, it’s not like those dividends aren’t going to happen. The 33 million is going to end up in the pocket of the private sector as payouts instead of going to our City and paying for programs. But in the meantime, our City is in the situation they are in. And I do think it makes more sense for us to look at the list, right, and we decide what we think is important as programs and projects that make sense for the County to fund and which things maybe need to go by the wayside because we don’t have the resources to be able to fund those things because we can’t pick up every one of those projects.”
Commissioner Mary Alford said this could be an opportunity to operate more efficiently, including a look at combining services, perhaps fire services: “I think some of them may be viable; some of them may not be.”
“If that dividend goes to programs, I could understand that. But I don’t think that’s what was happening there.” – Commissioner Chuck Chestnut
Chestnut said he was not advocating for privatizing the utility; his point was that the City should have been raising its property taxes to provide services instead of depending on the transfer from GRU. Responding to Prizzia, he said, “If that dividend goes to programs, I could understand that. But I don’t think that’s what was happening there. And I want to keep GRU. I never was wanting to go to an authority or anything like that. I would not vote for that.”
He continued, “But I’m just saying a lot of commissioners don’t take that role as being Board of Directors of the utility and separating their role as a City Commissioner, to deal with City business versus the utility… [City Commissioners] still have a fiduciary responsibility for that utility and also for the City. And that’s the difference, I think, that has occurred over the years. Most commissioners said, ‘That’s not my problem. As long as that transfer is coming, I’m happy.'”
Cornell pointed out that one large fire department is not necessarily more efficient than two smaller ones, particularly because Alachua County Fire Rescue is a rural fire department and Gainesville Fire Rescue is urban. But he said his goal in this conversation was to be proactive about joint City/County programs and handle them in the budget cycle. He said he would like to see the list in an email, then the board could have a policy discussion about it.
“It’s not an automatic that, oh, the County will just do it. We have our own budget and our own requirements.” – Commissioner Ken Cornell
County Manager Michele Lieberman said she had concerns about signaling what the County is willing to pay before the City makes decisions on its own cuts. Cornell said he just wanted the board to have the list: “I think it’s really important that the public knows that if the City has to do certain things because JLAC is telling them, or they’re just having to do certain things, certain things may not be funded this year. And that it’s not an automatic that, oh, the County will just do it. We have our own budget and our own requirements.” He said the City and County have “worked on big things together” over the last decade, so those joint projects represent “big dollars.”
“Now, if that board says we can’t do that anymore or these are things that we can no longer afford, I think we have to be ready for that and understand the history of that and understand what our roles as County Commissioners are versus their roles as City Commissioners because they are completely different.” – Commissioner Ken Cornell
Cornell said he wanted all the commissioners to understand the historical background of some of the agreements. He used GRACE Marketplace as an example: “We used to fund GRACE $750,000. They funded GRACE $750,000. We collectively decided we’re going to attack permanent supportive housing and housing, homelessness, as a joint board by increasing funding a million and a half over the next three years. We were going to do $250,000, and they were going to do $250,000. And so over the next three years, now we’re doing a million and a half and they are doing a million and a half. So we move from collectively $1.5 to $3 million. That was a decision that we made five years ago. Now, if that board says we can’t do that anymore or these are things that we can no longer afford, I think we have to be ready for that and understand the history of that and understand what our roles as County Commissioners are versus their roles as City Commissioners because they are completely different.”
Prizzia responded, “Yes, they are completely different, but their citizens are our citizens.”
The board does not typically take votes at policy meetings, so they moved on to the next agenda item with the understanding that Lieberman understood the request for a list of projects.
No! Don’t take their financial burdens! They will never learn if they are constantly bailed out. The city managers and commissioners have RUINED this city and utilities.
Short answer is “Hell no!” The city wouldn’t.
The flip side is all of these progressive Democrats are indicating that the city should have raised taxes. That’s what Democrats do. The idiots in Gainesville, yes, the ones who voted to increase their utility rates, the ones who like having the 🖕given to them – those idiots. I’m all about equity… whether you’re black, white or yellow, your just as big an idiot as the next if you voted for anyone on the Board.
Who’s bed is Prizzia sleeping in by trying to justify the City’s financial incompetence? She planning on running for city commission soon? We should get far more value in our “dividends” than increased utility rates. She needs to get out and meet the community and listen to their despair and anger over taxes and utility bills.
Taxes are high enough because of their continued purchase of lands that are being purchased and taken off the tax rolls. Then they give developers tax breaks to develop other areas and increase population densities. It’s not rocket science! Stop being so naive.
County shouldn’t lose sleep over it. With any luck, the state will come in and plug the holes in the sinking ship.
Maybe you guys can get audited, too. What better way to show your solidarity with the city.
You are very smart Peabody!
Companies don’t pay dividends unless they’re making a profit. GRU is not making a profit, they’re losing money!
You took the words right out of my mouth. GRU’s debt has increased in recent years which tells me they have been borrowing money to pay expenses and the annual transfer. The definition of a dividend is money paid to shareholders of a corporation out of earnings, i.e. profits. Commissioner Prizzia needs a basic finance course.
Needs more than that.
Judging by her comments, Prizzia has such a weak grasp of finance that anything she proposes involving public expenditure or “investment” (meat plant) should be viewed as another potential fiscal disaster.
What is it about being elected to some minor public office that takes a middling college bureaucrat andor leftist party hack and gives them the idea that they are experts in finance and real estate?
Exactly right. There is inherent differences between a board of directors for the utility and the city commission. The commission has abused the utility to fund their pet programs.
BIOMESS! I believe it was about 10 years ago when the MESS started blossoming. City had an inescapable contract. Then buy terribly constructed plant at $7.5 mil for fake renewable energy production to get out of contract.
Now they don’t have the funds to retool to natural gas and it’s essentially a piece of crap. And they want bail out from our county that had nothing to do with it.
Jerry get your numbers straight. $7.5 mil? We wish. Try $750,000,000.
There could be a valid argument that the only people who have been collecting “dividends” are the individuals who were elected to provide a fiduciary application for the benefit of the community.
I hope the city doesn’t decide to access the pension fund in their near darkest hour.
The GFT is NOT a dividend! Dividends are paid to stockholders, individuals! Dividends are NOT funds transferred for the personal use of the GNV CC and Mayor to pay for their pet projects!
Ms. Prizia (she is BOCC Chairman in name only, Cornell is in charge) is just trying to justify her Comrades in GNV Local CCP pilfering $30 – $50 Million annually. Smells like a payoff somewhere!
It is way past time Alachua County voters wake up and jettison anyone currently on the AC BOCC along with GNV CC and Mayor!
Or perhaps those who keep reelecting these individuals just love being ripped off on taxes and high utility payments each year!
Increase property taxes? I looked up property tax millage rates a couple of years back and New Jersey supposedly had the highest millage rate but in fact my millage rate in Gainesville was higher! Has anyone ever considered spending less money?
Well said Beatnik
The county depends on the tax revenues of the suburbs the same as the city depends on GRU. But the city bit off more than they can chew. The UF elephant in the room should fill in that need, before dumping it on the county. That’s for the state leadership to figure out.
As “Shareholders” in the utility, the citizens that are on GRU should receive those “dividend” checks. It should not go to the City’s coffers to be wasted on leftist agenda items within the city. If GRU is a publicly owned utility, then all GRU rate payers should benefit, especially those that live outside city limits.
What a bunch of BS. Trying to cost shift their wasteful spending on the county. Enough of your nonsense….now….fix the damn roads!
Chair Anna Prizzia is clueless on Financial items . Does the Chair not understand that Gville’s 30 million dollar plus kickbacks were funded by borrowed money . Prizzia thinks GRU makes a surplus each year with a 22% daily debt burden . What entity can pay 22% overhead just on Debt Service. That is $22,000 on every $100,000 in revenue if you are still in denial that GRU is broke, losing money every month and will be dissolved . I am inviting the State legislature and Governor to monitor and listen to all ABCC meetings . The commissioner’s analysis and comments in this article should should be enough start and Audit . The Commissioner (s) that held office recently ,not living in her district and taking a salary anyway would be an easy place to start. They have no shame or basic common sense.
Prizzia’s comments are evidence of just how out of touch the left is. It is not a “dividend”. Publicly owned companies are not forced to borrow money to pay shareholders. A dividend is not paid at the expense of a corporations balance sheet. Shareholders do not get to dictate how much of a dividend they will receive.
And in the next paragraph, “We get to control those dividends and how they get spent in our community by electing the people who oversee our utility” Well, Anna, you just identified the problem even better than JLAC. GRU is run as a business, and it does make a profit. The city needs to realize that running a municipality needs to be done in the same manner, as a business, not as a philanthropy trying to buy votes.
Perhaps it’s time to consider consolidation of services such as fire rescue, ems, and law enforcement.