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Mayor Poe shuts down discussion of budget cuts

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / JULY 10, 2019

During the June 20 Gainesville City Commission meeting, Interim City Manager Deborah Bowie presented a list of $1.5 million in cuts to the proposed budget for the city’s general fund; this exercise had been requested by the commission at an earlier meeting. This slide shows the starting point for the discussions; several things are important to note before going into the commission’s discussion.

The FY19 general fund budget is $129.43 million. The projected revenues for FY20 are $128.69 million, and projected expenses are $129.86 million, for a projected deficit of $1.17 million. So the starting point for the budget is not far off from the current year’s budget. However, during the earlier budget discussions, the Interim City Manager added $1.2 million in increments, including 16.5 new full-time positions, including a $150k/year Executive Chief of Staff for the City Manager, a position that was eliminated for FY19. The city commission then added their own increments for $1.2 million, including $734k in recurring funds for all future years. The biggest chunk of this was Gail Johnson’s request for $170k for 2 new equity officers (with no discussion about the duties of these two positions except that they would make sure that every decision of the city takes equity into account) and $300k/year in operating funds for the commission’s new equity initiative. According to the above slide, that leaves the commission with a deficit of $3.1 million, although we’re not sure where the other ~$500k in commissioner increments went, which would push the budget closer to the $4 million deficit that is often discussed. 

After an outcry from citizens about plans discussed at the June 5 and 6 meetings to increase property taxes, electricity rates, and fire assessment fees to make up the deficit, the commission asked Bowie to bring the $1.5 million in cuts. 

Bowie’s presentation showed that one option to balance the budget without cuts is a .55 mill property tax increase. Making the cuts would allow a smaller .3415 mill increase. Both of those scenarios include a $29 increase in the fire assessment fee. So for a homeowner with a property value of $150k, the increase would be $114/year without the cuts and $83/year with the cuts. Bowie’s list recommended against further study of the broadband initiative and said the city should delay some hires. Here is the full list of proposed cuts:

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he would be in favor of specific cuts, totaling around $100k. Mayor Lauren Poe said those cuts wouldn’t make a real difference to citizens: “I don’t want to make light of any of this. The cuts that Commissioner Hayes-Santos just suggested are $100k, total, which doesn’t effectively change millage rate, anything that anybody would notice in a tax bill… I thank you, Madam Manager, because you did what we asked you to do… if I were to go through, line by line, say yes, no, maybe, it’s hard for me to see that our city would be better off by not aggressively implementing a census outreach committee, by tapping the brakes on our equity positions and funding to implement, that we don’t hire the additional fire inspector. When we look at the large-dollar items that would – and even with all of these, you’re talking about two-tenths of a mill, or $30, over the course of a year. It’s not that I want to minimize $30, but what do our residents get for those $30? So we’d give all this up for those $30… I’m standing by my original position and sticking with the original budget that we voted on.”

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Commissioner Harvey Ward said that during the initial preparations for making the budget, every department was asked to make cuts and did make cuts, and the city should have been “telling that story” all along. He said next year the City Manager should highlight those “so that we can say, ‘Look, here’s the list of cuts that have already been made before it ever got rolled out to us.’”

[Fact check: The “Expenses” line in the first image above presumably reflects those initial cuts. We would be having a different conversation if that were the budget, but the city manager and city commission “increments” (there’s nothing “incremental” about $2.7 million dollars) pushed the deficit from around $1 million to around $4 million.]

Commissioner David Arreola said he would be willing to delay some of his requested increments and that the commission should be willing to make tough decisions: “This commission is at a flashpoint now. We have asked the community to support a lot of very ambitious projects, some of which are in the most prenatal stages you can possibly imagine, and we’re going to need to continue to ask our community to support those efforts. We’re also going to need to continue to ask them to commit public resources to it… I think that we need to be cognizant of the statement that is made when we don’t make certain cuts to our own existing budget, and I’m aware that some of the items on here are things that I asked for in increments, and I’m willing to see some of those be reduced because I think that it is incumbent on us… I think we should go back to our citizens and say we also made some tough decisions about reductions in our own budget. I think we have to prove that to people because in the coming years, when we… continue to make these requests, we need to have already demonstrated that we’re willing to also make cuts on our end… I don’t support cutting this entire list… If I had to put a figure, I would say I would be probably more comfortable with about $1 million in cuts, not the full $1.5 million, but… I won’t be supporting a budget that doesn’t have final cuts to it.”

Commissioner Helen Warren also said she supported some of the cuts: “I do… feel that if there are still some things that we could cut, we need to think about cutting.. I support trying to cut a million, at least, off, which is like 1%, but…”

Commissioner Gigi Simmons agreed: “I think we need to look at some areas that we can do… better.”

Warren then seemed to change her mind, saying that government expenses will always increase, and the commission has to decide whether they will continue to keep raising taxes, but the programs are too important to cut: “It’s easy to get comfortable with that and say let’s just keep taking on all those great ideas that we have, but I’m gonna have to say, I’m gonna weigh this and have to go with allowing us to keep those things in place rather than cut them.”

Poe argued again for rejecting the cuts: “Over the last several months, the commission has, in most if not all cases, voted unanimously to move forward with certain things. Total Rewards… by freezing management salaries, we are going against our unanimous vote. We voted unanimously to support the creation of two new equity officer positions, as well as funding for implementation. By adopting these recommendations, we would go against our unanimous vote… So you go down this list, the reason they’re included in the budget is we as a commission said this is what we want in our budget… As a guy who has grown tired of… politics and… pledges not to raise taxes and things like that, we’ve had an artificially low tax rate for years and years and years, and that is evidenced by not only the other municipalities in our county but even a place like Ocala, to the south of us… To Commissioner Warren’s point, to provide the level of service at the level of quality that our residents expect, it requires us to fund those things… It’s a good budget… I feel like I’m whining right now, but it’s probably the hour and the… umpteenth time we’ve done budget… I’m sticking with the budget that we agreed on.”

[Fact check: According to the respective property appraisers’ websites, property taxes for a $150,000 house in the city of Gainesville with a homestead exemption are about $35/year less than the same house in the city of Ocala (only looking at ad valorem taxes, which do not include fire assessment fees). That’s hardly “artificially low.”]

Simmons continued to argue that they could cut the budget by delaying some of the hires they had voted on: “I’m looking at it as a reduction, and not necessarily a do-away-with. For instance, we may not have 2 FTEs [full-time equivalent positions], we’ll just simply use one and revisit it next year. We may have asked for $150k but you know what, we can do with $75k and revisit that next year… I’m fine with a reduction in the travel budget of 10%… we may not get everything we’re asking for; we’re getting some of it and revisiting it next year.”

Arreola then made a motion, proposing specific cuts, totaling about $1.3 million: “I’d like to move that we accept the proposed cuts except for the broadband study, the sale of Fire Station 1, the New Year’s Eve fireworks, and the Free Fridays and holiday lighting.”

Hayes-Santos and City Attorney Nicolle Shalley argued that the city had already promised to implement Total Rewards salary increases. 

During citizen comment on the motion, Nathan Skop argued that all of the FTEs they are adding will continue adding to the budget in every future year. He also brought up the ~29 FTEs that are needed to make up for the city’s decision to stop using prison labor, but which do not seem to show up in the proposed increments: “This $1.5 million in cuts, by my calculation, is approximately 1% of your entire budget… that’s not a substantial cut… I think it’s a good start, to cut the commission’s travel budget and the charter officers’ travel budget across the board by 10%, because you guys travel all over the place. Four of y’all have gone to Washington, D.C., apparently… It’s the principle. It’s taxpayer money… I think the expansion of city government is at your own peril because that’s recurring cost; you don’t even know how to pay for the 27 to 29 FTEs… after this year. That’s going to be additional increases; hopefully it’s budgeted. You can’t keep expanding city government… there’s a financial impact. It befuddles me how you’re so nonchalant and ‘let them eat cake’ with taxpayer money. Start with core services; everything else is discretionary.”

Debbie Martinez added: “I’m glad that some of you are actually trying to do something, even if it’s at the final hour. But you’ve had months… to start working on the significant budget cuts that you need to make on the city budget and on the GRU budget to prevent having to raise GRU rates. But instead, you kept adding hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars more to the budget! That appears to me to be insanity!”

Ernesto Martinez observed, “You’re contemplating… a less than 1% reduction in your budget, and every one of you looks like you’re sitting at a funeral.”

The motion failed, 2-5, with only Simmons and Arreola voting in favor of any cuts to the budget.

Poe then closed the discussion instead of asking for additional motions, saying, “We will go ahead with a tentative budget on the July 18th meeting… We’re not required to take action tonight.”

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