“Nothing I’ve ever voted on in a previous budget was frivolous”: City Commission discusses budget proposals, considers closing Ironwood Golf Course

From broadcast video of May 25 Gainesville City Commission Workshop


GAINESVILLE, Fla – The Gainesville City Commission held a workshop yesterday to consider recommendations for changes to the City’s budget for FY24. Mayor Harvey Ward pointed out at the beginning that they would not be voting on “this very difficult, manufactured budget crisis that we find ourselves in” because it was a workshop, but the commission will continue to have meetings over the next few weeks to discuss various departmental budgets, with the next meeting on June 14.

City Manager Cynthia Curry emphasized that the recommendations were not final “because we are looking to these workshops to continue to get input and refine” the budget. She also mentioned that the commission will likely need to increase the property tax by one mill, from 5.5 mills to 6.5 mills. 

Steve Varvel, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget, started out by saying, “I’m here to tell you that we will just not be able to produce a budget that provides a level of service that the city deserves at 5.5. So we are hoping that we can get at least some thoughts on developing that budget at a 6.5 millage rate, which will still result in going back to the departmental budgets and looking for an additional $3 million of savings.”

Sustainable Development

The proposed Sustainable Development department budget includes small increases in Code Enforcement and Urban Forestry and the Chief Climate Officer position that was transferred from the City Manager’s office; the budget cuts the Director of Economic Development position (the person currently in that position is retiring at the end of July), two vacant Planner positions, and an Assistant Director position. The budget also eliminates the City’s contribution to the North Florida Regional Planning Council. The department’s budget is proposed to have an overall decrease of $200,960, 5.73% less than the FY23 budget. Varvel emphasized that the presentations only cover expenses funded with General Fund dollars.

Ward said the new GCRA Director has an extensive economic development background from the City of St. Petersburg, so he will pick up some of the work done by the previous Economic Development Director: “We’re not abandoning the concept of economic development; we’re just doing it differently.”

Housing and Community Development

The proposed Housing and Community Development budget includes increased responsibility and salary for one position and moves another position over from the City Manager’s Office, for an overall increase of $130,155, 40.5% more than the FY23 budget. Varvel said the proposed budget for the “relatively small department” would have no service impacts because the department is mainly funded by grants.


The proposed Transportation budget eliminates three and a half currently-filled positions and one temporary position and also consolidates operations under fewer cost centers. The budget proposes eliminating the GAC-SmartTraffic public website and the Community Bike Program. Free bus passes (Fare-Free) for City employees, GRU employees, children under 18, and elders over 65 would also be eliminated, along with two supplemental bus routes, two campus bus routes, and holiday bus service. The department’s proposed budget has an overall reduction of $383,974, 9.37% of the FY23 budget. 

Slide from presentation, showing proposed bus route changes

Curry clarified that the City has a Processing Pipeline Committee with the goal of matching vacant positions that have not been eliminated with people whose positions will be cut. Ward added that he wanted to make sure everybody understands that the City is making an effort to place people in different City jobs if their job is eliminated.

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said it’s “really difficult” for her to see the elimination of the Fare-Free program: “I’m really hoping that there may be some way for us to re-think this.” She said the City will be providing summer job opportunities for young people, “and some of them may need to use the buses… And once that disappears, how will these young people, who we are trying to provide employment opportunities for, keep them free from gun violence, gang violence, get to work? When this may be the only way that they can do that for now.” She asked about the cost savings associated with eliminating the free fares, and Curry said it’s $115,000 per year. 

Duncan-Walker was also concerned about eliminating any bus routes in east Gainesville; she said people in her district always tell her they want more bus service. 

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut also encouraged the City Manager to “sharpen your pencil there and find the $115,000 to continue that service.” Curry responded, “We’ll do our best.”

Commissioner Ed Book questioned whether eliminating the Fare-Free program would actually save any money because the buses run anyway. Curry responded that the $115,000 is a real expense paid from the City to RTS, so eliminating it will save money in the City’s General Fund. 

Commissioner Casey Willits said it was “hard to swallow” eliminating the Fare-Free program. He added that when service is reduced, the bus becomes less convenient, so people stop riding it, and it “starts to just be a downward spiral.”

Commissioner Bryan Eastman said that bus passes for City and GRU employees “cost RTS nothing because the marginal cost of providing one more seat on a bus is not particularly high.”

Ward said that Gainesville is one of only two municipalities in the state that have their own transit systems because most cities share transit systems with other cities; he said it’s a “very complex operation” and that the commission should lean on the expertise of RTS. Ward said he was very proud of getting the Fare-Free program approved in 2021 and that he was “hopeful that through some kind of budget magic, we’re able to find a way to save that.”

Public Works

The proposed Public Works budget eliminates 9.7 positions and reduces the budget by $738,033, 9.7% of the FY23 budget. The Crosswalk Painting Program will be eliminated, and the timeliness of some services will be impacted. 

Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs

The Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs budget proposes closing down Ironwood Golf Course for a net savings of $162,745 in FY24. The proposed budget eliminates 11 positions, including 3 filled positions at the golf course, the Nature Operations Manager and a Nature Operations Staff Assistant (both filled), and three Depot Park Ambassador positions (all vacant). The budget reduces some travel and training expenses, along with reduced artist/talent fees, and also restructures the Youth Services department, eliminating the funding allocated to youth services. The department’s budget will be reduced by $3,171,914, 23.06% of the FY23 budget. 

Book suggested making small increases in fees at Ironwood to make up the deficit.

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker brought up the idea of selling Ironwood, adding, “I’m not saying it’s something I want to do; I don’t want to do any of this.”

Regarding Youth Services, Roxana Gonzalez, Director of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs, said the budgeted positions were never hired except for the Youth Services Manager, and “the mission of Youth Services was to strengthen the youth in our community through programs and services and partnerships with local nonprofits and other youth service agencies. So it’s pretty much leveraging and working with the local youth agencies.” She said they are now bringing the Youth Services component over to the Recreation Division.

Duncan-Walker said, “It’s no secret that I had a slightly different vision for the organization and being able to fold some things in about gun violence. I wanted at least two positions out of that Youth Services Department that would specifically speak to and deal solely with gun violence prevention. But here we are, and we’ll find a way to do that.”

Willits wondered whether Ironwood could be converted into a park, but he noted that it’s expensive to maintain the grounds. He added, “This is where we’ve actually started talking about a real, real large amount of cuts, large amount of employees, and also filled positions that we’re talking about, not just vacancies… This is hard to swallow.” He also said it was sad that Youth Services is “on the chopping block.”

Gonzalez responded that she believes that consolidating Youth Services and Recreation “will enhance our programs. But it will also give us the opportunity to leverage and utilize and assist those nonprofit organizations that… have wanted to work with the City of Gainesville for years.” She said the City could offer vacant facilities to nonprofits at no charge, for example.

Chestnut said she was “not sold” on closing Ironwood and added that it may not be easy to sell. She also pointed out that the facility is used for meetings, events, and conferences. 

Saco ask for confirmation that Ironwood operates at a loss, and Varvel said it’s “hovered around $200,000 to $300,000 persistently now, for at least the last three fiscal years.” He said the net savings, however, would be about $162,000 for FY24. Varvel added that the pools also operate at a loss.

Saco said she was “not inclined to keep Ironwood, I never really have been, if only because golf is an environmental travesty–I will go on the record and say that. It takes land that could be better used, that can be better conserved, it wastes water, it puts fertilizer, it is not something that I would associate with a city that wants to put itself out there as green, like, environmentally conscious, period.” She also pointed out that the land would move onto the tax rolls if it were sold.

Responding to a question from Saco about eliminating the Nature Operations Division, Gonzalez said, “That does not affect the services.”

In response to a question from Eastman, Gonzalez said the Downtown Plaza events budget “was not touched, so that is intact. So the Free Fridays, Live and Local, and any other events that happen in the Plaza area will remain.” She said she hoped the cuts in artist and talent fees would be made up with a State grant.

Eastman said the City doesn’t expect pools or parks to be revenue-positive, “but, of course, we’re sitting up here saying, ‘$100,000 here, $100,000 there.'” He reminded the commission that the proposed General Fund budget is still $3.5 million short, even with the one-mill property tax increase. 

Eastman said it was unlikely that the City could sell the golf course before October 1, so he proposed running it just for the next fiscal year. 

Ward said he was interested in hearing “creative ideas” about the golf course: “I am not telling you that we should absolutely shut it down. I am saying we need to be hearing ideas and that we need to make sure that we examine this very carefully as we go through it.”

Ward continued, “None of this is good. None of this makes the city of Gainesville a better place to live, I don’t think.”

Duncan-Walker said that “several individuals” had contacted her about buying the Ironwood property.

The final slide showed the budget proposals to date; the proposals so far increase the budget by $6,338,585.

Public comment

During public comment, Linda Demetropoulos, the Nature Operations Manager, spoke for over ten minutes about the elimination of her job. She said she has been with the City for 12 years, and she manages 30 nature parks that operate seven days a week, so she’s always on call. She said, “And I just kind of felt like the packet that you received didn’t reflect the fact that I do work. Because it literally said there would be no impact if I’m to be eliminated.” She said her team has a completely different skill set from anybody else in Parks and Recreation–for example, her team does prescribed burns, which she said is a “real specialized field, and not just anybody can do it.” She said the nature parks will degrade if her team is eliminated. She also said she’s the only person in the department with a “working knowledge of conservation land acquisition and the Hogtown Creek Greenway, as well.” She said that trail connections will not be completed if she leaves. She added that exhibits at the nature centers and nature education will also suffer. She suggested using some of the tree mitigation funds or exploring grants to fund Nature Operations. 

“It is just that the State of Florida has decided that they are going to beat up on Gainesville for a bit”

After public comment, Eastman said that if they have to cut positions, “it’s not because your work was not important, it is not because you are not valued by your community, it is just that the State of Florida has decided that they are going to beat up on Gainesville for a bit, and we are doing our best to live within the reality of where we are… All of this is real people, it is real services that people rely on, it is our environment, it is the things that make Gainesville so great.”

Book said they should at least explore across-the-board pay cuts for employees who are not in bargaining units or in contracts and also consider reducing the size of the City’s fleet.

Ward concluded, “I will reiterate that none of us want to do any of this, nor was it something that naturally occurred through the economy, but it is upon us. Regardless, there is nothing we talked about today that makes the city of Gainesville better for the people who live here. Nothing I’ve ever voted on in a previous budget was frivolous… We’re not approaching any of this lightly. In the short term, I would encourage folks to go back and review the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, when some folks said that they wanted to see the City of Gainesville experience some pain. And I want to assure them that we are experiencing pain through this.”

Ward promised they would be “extra creative in how we find ways to make this work, and how we save jobs, and how we deliver services with less money. We will do our very best to keep any tax increases as low as possible and still deliver services. But that was also a suggestion from the Joint Legislative Audit Committee members–that we raise taxes.”

Move of Clerk’s Office to City Manager’s Office postponed to June 1

Because the budget items went long, Ward moved the discussion about putting the Clerk’s Office under the City Manager to the June 1 City Commission meeting.

  • And the GNV CC just keeps spreading fear by talking cutting pools, parks, free bus service, things that benefit a large portion of city residents, but will not make a significant impact on reducing the budget. Scare tactics, and of course blaming State government for their inability to control their appetite for “frivolous” spending! Following a certain party’s playbook to the letter! First thing out of their mouths is the “free stuff” is going to get cut!

    Infrastructure, basic services (trash collection, licensing, permits, animal control, and public safety (police and fire departments). That is the commission’s job.

    Cut all the extraneous programs, positions (Nature Operations Manager? Really?), that are unnecessary or absorbed by another work group interested in increasing their value and enhancing job security!

  • The more they talk, the more they validate the opinion the commission would never take action to deal with the GRU debt on their own. How about a 50% salary cut to commissioners and elimination of all commissioner travel budgets?

  • Just wait until the state takes over and you have to cut another 15 million 😂😂😂look at your salaries cut them also

  • Really pathetic! Substantial cuts is what Ward claimed to JLAC. Sure doesn’t look like it!!! Tax increase too. Pathetic bloated leadership!

  • Eliminate the Chief Climate Officer position and that can pay for the free bus pass.

    Or better yet eliminate RTS entirely and replace it with subsidized Uber/Lyft rides. It would be a better service, providing on-demand rides that arrive one-time instead of diesel busses running around with empty seats. Workers would have 24/7 ride service instead of a sporadic bus schedule that is designed around UF class schedules.

    The elderly, single-moms, and people less fortunate that can’t afford a car, would have “door to door” service instead of walking to a bus stop, which has no seat, or shade from Florida’s weather, only to stand for a bus that is not on-time.

    If Gainesville is one of two municipalities that has its own bus service then that is an indicator the RTS should be sold. Let UF figure out to get students on to campus, or tell UF to have more online classes. That will eliminate the need for CO2 producing vehicles driving around and will reduce the amount of UF construction/expansion, which takes more land off the tax rolls.

  • City clerk 1.5 million? City manager 2 million? Equity & inclusion 1.6 million? They need to cut the useless position(s) equity and inclusion completely out. Sustainable development 3.5 million? Transportation 4 million? People need to pay their own way on transportation, why should tax/rate payers pay for this? Raise the cost to ride the bus.

  • Eliminate the duplicate departments. Give all nature parks to the county who already has the staff and experience with their land conservation depth. Eliminate city solid waste department. Fun fact the city does not own 1 garbage truck, landfill, or transfer Station. Those are all private companies or county facilities. They just manage contracts, and have code enforcement inspectors. They don’t even collect your trash bill GRU does that who then pays the city who then pays for disposal at the county transfer station. Give all that responsibility to the county and watch your bill go down as they can get a better rate with city customers added to their pool. There are all sorts of ways to save money including selling ironwood.

  • No mention on of how much goes to “Grace Market” the Homeless
    Welcome Center. Where are all the churches, they should be more active and organized to help, especially the youth and homeless. Not just on Sunday.

  • Dear State of Florida
    Please consolidate the City with the County.

    Thank you
    Tired taxpayer

    • Oh heck no! We live outside of G’ville for a reason and we don’t want to be “consolidated” with the city. You got yourselves into this now you can just get yourselves out of it without trying to rob citizens of the county to pay for the city’s screw ups. NO WAY!

      • The City has been putting out feeler inquiries to county residents about the value of being annexed into the City…… beware

    • Oh hell no you can keep the idiotic left-wing ideas in the city we finally get single member districts to fix the country government

    • no no you don’t
      we don’t want any part of the loons in Gainesville you made your plate now eat it

    • You must live in the Gainesville City limits. The County residences Gville has abused want no part of your bankruptcy. If it is even suggested Springs County would give birth!

    • I agree! County voters will dilute and cancel the woke globalist cult that ruined G’ville.

      • If that’s the case why are there 5 liberals out of 5 districts on the county commission?

  • “I’m here to tell you that we will just not be able… [to] provide [the] level of service that the city deserves…” City deserves? Really? That is now a job of an unelected gofer instead of the citizens?

    Cut 9.37% from transportation, a basic infrastructure obligation of the city. You should cut the free rides for city and GRU employees. Why should they get special treatment?

    So far, the budget is an INCREASE of $6,338,585. All of the cuts are in primary infrastructure, leaving their giveaway programs alone. These inept Democrats, with no concept of economics, are talking about a 20% tax increase. If they keep up like this, hopefully the state will take over. The madness has to stop.

  • The commissioners are in their preliminary phase of crying poor mouth and now it’s the ‘evil republicans’ who stole the cookie jar. Their next move will be to use our tax revenues to initiate a propaganda campaign to convince us to vote “yes” on their ballot referendums for additional taxes for schools, roads, social services, parks, etc. It will be an end run attempt to avoid any semblance of fiscal restraint.

    • It’s going to be a PR battle now… with each cut.

      “Don’t us responsible Liberal leaders, blame Clemons and Perry when you can’t play Golf”.

      It would be wise to get ahead and develop a counter messaging strategy as the rubber starts to hit the road.

  • If they eliminated Equity & Inclusion and Sustainability Development, it would cut over $5 million from budget.

  • Talk about a money pit! How many millions has the city pumped into the place and got a zero return for the investment. Waste of tax payers money.
    If you listen to Ward and Varvel they’ll have you paying even more taxes to support their tax and spend lifestyle.

  • This is all that needs to be read about who caused the financial catastrophe the city finds itself in:

    Mayor Harvey Ward pointed out at the beginning that they would not be voting on “this very difficult, manufactured budget crisis that we find ourselves in.”

    They put us here and the liberal voters enabled them. Hope they’re happy.

  • So thankful I don’t live within the City of Gainesville. Cut services and increase taxes that’s the leftist way.

  • Ward concluded, “I will reiterate that none of us want to do any of this, nor was it something that naturally occurred through the economy, but it is upon us. Regardless, there is nothing we talked about today that makes the city of Gainesville better for the people who live here. Nothing I’ve ever voted on in a previous budget was frivolous…”

    Only two things have a hint of truth from his statement; it didn’t occur naturally and it doesn’t make things better for the residents. The rest, more of his BS lies.

    • It’s going to be funny af when Harvey and Eastman are kissing Ed B. and Nathan’s a$$. Can’t wait !!

  • Democrats always cut the most painful cut possible to protect their wasteful pet charity projects.

  • Even after a major budget problem has been identified Wardy and co STILL refuse to believe it. That in itself is astounding… There should be a certain qualification level and an understanding of basic economics before anyone can serve as a commissioner.

    • Being able to tie your shoes without looking would be a good start. That would disqualify most of the current commissioners.

  • It’s hard to address the many ,many wasteful actions by the City of Gainesville. I mean , have you ever seen a full bus? They could get by with 15 seat passenger vans , easily as an example. What is the total operational cost vs revenue for the failed RTS? Clueless Eastman and Willits, no one is beating up the City of Gainesvilles finances but you and your predessessors. Pucker Up Buttercup . The GRU customers do not care about you self induced predicament . SOS has it’s penalties.

  • They went off track long ago, after using city politics as personal stepping stones for state, national and global trendy career-focused politics.
    Go back to focus on essentials. The global Dollar empire isn’t what it used to be, thanks to their own politics.

  • Chief Climate Officer? 10.5 million for parks and recreation? 1.5 million for ‘equity and inclusion’? while our ‘chitty’ becomes more and more uninhabitable on the most basic levels……Deal with 1)Crime 2) Homeless 3)Infrastructure.

  • Very few of you would be here or have a job if Gainesvile didn’t exist, and that goes for many living outside of even Alachua county lines. Sure, consolidate services but that doesn’t make sense if not centralized with the biggest driver of the county population and economy, and that isn’t Newberry.

    Typically as is GOP style these days – you all Republicans, are correct? – hate is the motivating force as if you are the victims of life in America, and so reason is not part of the discussion, resentment is. Remember, GRU has a higher credit rating than FPL, so the “crisis” is just the excuse for the hostile takeover.

    As to “Springs County”, the concept is for a parasite county living off being adjacent to Gainesville, and UF, and those pushing th eidea will be the last to protect actual springs as they mock environmental concerns, and it’s leader are cash-it-in money grubbers.

    • I can assure you that neither myself or my wife depends on wokeville for a living. As far as that goes we spend more on GRU than we spend in the city limits
      I am perfectly ok with GRU stopping their services at the city limits and not coming into the county i would be very happy with FLP, Duke,Clay electric.
      I moved to Alachua county not wokeville

    • Azz Man with another bizzare , LaLa Land observation. Typical Gainesvillle voter that cant read. Read the State’s Bill. Get past the denial. Our world does not revolve around Gainesville , thank God. GRU’s credit rating is going up soon , when the thieves of Gainesville are fired. Good Luck with your taxes and failed City financials !

    • So says the contractor who by current policies, has probably done little to help the homeless but has gotten as much as could be had from residential and commercial construction.
      That hypocrisy works pretty well doesn’t it.

    • Funny, Gainesville would be lake city with out the University! That’s a fact! The crisis is idiots leftists spending more than they can afford! It’s typical of leftists!

    • The biggest economic driver within the county is not the city government. It is the university that brings millions into our community.

      • Look at a map Heat. UF is in Gainesville. I can assure you that much of it’s faculty and grad assistants would not want to live here if Gainesville had the culture of Newberry, or if they did, Newberry would have Gainesville culture.

        By the way, when the county seat was moved to Gainesville from Nenwnansville, UF did not exist. The railroad was just built and Gainesville became the economic center for the ag community surrounding it. As late as about 30 years ago, the livestock market was in Gainesville, just north of the rancher, and places like Brownlee’s Feed and Seed still sold to farmers. Unless GH is on SS, he wouldn’t be here if not for Gainesville which is the economic and cultural center of Alachua County. Maybe he lives in Gilchrist, which also benefits economically from Gainesville. 15 years ago, the #1 employer of Putnam County residents was Shands.

        • Hey Jizzman, most of UF’s faculty does not live in Gainesville proper. They live on the western side of the county…not the east side that the county and city have hindered development. Why don’t those UF employees, with the vast financial resources they possess, why aren’t they building in the eastern parts? Maybe there’s a reason developers and potential property owners haven’t flocked to the east side. Given your vast knowledge of Alachua County, tell us why you chose to live in the western region. Please, we’re all waiting for your continued pandering to your liberal loons.

  • Every time I read something Reina Saco says, it makes me wonder how this person has existed this long in life.

    • I met Nancy Lopez when I was young. Saco probably can’t keep thoughts of Trump on the golf course out of her head. In her oxygen-deprived, warped mind, Ironwood = bad orange man.

        • She was/is a famous female golfer with a Hispanic name. Saco should be able to relate to her. What about all the little Hispanic neighbor kids who might want to learn to play golf like Nancy Lopez? I guess running a big encampment for mentally ill street people from far and wide is more important for the ultra-woke. Besides, they apparently don’t care about little girls and their sports anymore, anyway.

          “Lopez was considered to be one of the greats of women’s golf, and she was the game’s best player from the late 1970s to late 1980s. She won three majors, and all were at the LPGA Championship, at the same course, in 1978, 1985, and 1989. Lopez never won the U.S. Women’s Open, but finished second four times, the last in 1997 when she became the first in the event’s history to score under 70 for all four rounds, yet lost to Alison Nicholas.”

    • She is a symptom of the problem. If she wasn’t elected the UF students would have picked someone just as bad…..

  • “Nothing I’ve ever voted on in a previous budget was frivolous” — Harvey Ward

    I’m reminded of a conversation with an ex-con many years ago who gave me the sage criminal advice to NEVER, EVER admit to anything–even when confronted with irrefutable, ironclad evidence of your guilt.

    Always deny.

    • I bet Ward looks in the mirror and sees Clint Eastwood from the early 1970s staring back at him. I think he’d tell you, “When you care sooo much about People, no expenditure is frivolous.”

  • Regarding consolidating the City and County:

    City residents already vote in County Commission elections.

    This is true whether commissioners are elected at large or from single memory districts.

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