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Opinion: GNVCares proposal warrants taxpayer concern

OPINION

BY NATHAN SKOP

Today at 3:00, the Gainesville City Commission will consider various COVID-19 agenda items, including “COVID-19 Equity Tool Kit,” the “GNVCares” proposal, and “COVID-19 Emergency Orders and Reopening Plans.”

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Of particular concern to taxpayers is the GNVCares agenda item. The GNVCares agenda item materialized from a memo to the City Commission written by City Manager Lee Feldman. This memo, which was referenced and openly discussed during the last meeting while the public was kept in the dark, had to be obtained via a public records request because the Mayor and City Commission (unlike the Alachua County Commission) refuse to post all their email messages to the City website on a daily basis.

The GNVCares agenda item “will provide direct assistance (grants) to our neighbors and businesses… This is the first phase of a program which will be expanded upon the availability of additional resources. It is intended to be a starting point, not an end.”

While everyone can support lending a helping hand to neighbors and businesses affected by COVID-19, the important questions are: (1) whether the City should be “repurposing” taxpayer money to fund this “progressive” subsidy program; (2) whether the City is being fiscally irresponsible by undertaking this additional $3.2 million obligation in the wake of having approved significant tax increases, the failure of the City to cut a single penny of its own wasteful discretionary spending before imposing these tax increases on hard-working Gainesville families, and the ongoing budgetary problems faced by the City and GRU, which will undoubtedly be compounded by the GNVCares program; and (3) whether the City intends to give away taxpayer money to undocumented and homeless persons.

Specifically, is this “progressive” subsidy program the proper role of City government or the latest effort by the Mayor and City Commission to pursue another fiscally irresponsible merit badge?

Here are some points that are worthy of consideration:

1.  Substantial Tax Increases. In October 2019, the City raised taxes 15.64%; raised the fire assessment fee 32%; and raised the GRU electric system revenue requirement nearly 10%, citing budget deficits. The Mayor and City Commission, however, refused to cut a single penny of their wasteful discretionary spending prior to imposing these substantial tax and rate increases on taxpayers and GRU customers.  

2.  The Shell Game. The City now plans to reallocate existing budget resources to help fund this newly-created $3.2 million unbudgeted “progressive” subsidy program.

3. Progressive Logic. Ironically, the Mayor and City Commission are quick to reallocate taxpayer money to help fund this $3.2 million unbudgeted “progressive” subsidy program, but they couldn’t find a single penny of this unspent money to help avoid the substantial tax increases that they imposed on hardworking Gainesville families and local businesses in October 2019.

4.  City Spending Spree. Funding for GNVCares will come from existing City resources, along with federal and state dollars. The estimated cost for the plan is $3,186,000 (General Fund – $830,000, CDBG – $970,000, GCRA – $830,000, SHIP – $556,000). The City is proposing to spend a substantial amount of taxpayer money on the proposed GNVCares program. The City is effectively spending money that it doesn’t have, given its existing budget challenges and its unwillingness to stop expanding City government.

5.  Double Dipping. The “GNVCares About Neighbors” portion of the GNVCares program proposes to give up to $2,500 (originally $5,000) to each low-income applicant for rent, mortgage, and GRU bills.

The agenda item narrative fails to mention that those who qualify for “GNVCares About Neighbors” are also likely eligible to receive:

  • $1,200 federal stimulus check
  • $275 per week State unemployment 
  • $600 per week Federal pandemic assistance
  • Other public benefits (Social Security benefits, food stamps, etc.)

While the $5,000 originally-proposed subsidy appeared to be a substantial windfall in addition to Federal and State assistance, the reality is that $2,500 per person will only help approximately 278 people under the proposed funding allocation ($696,000). Notwithstanding the funding and budget concerns, reducing this amount to $500 would have a wider impact in helping the community at large. Furthermore, will GRU customers living outside the City, who pay a surcharge, be eligible for this assistance program?

The City claims that “GNVCares About Neighbors” will be funded with $696,000 from SHIP (State Housing Initiatives Partnership) and CARES Act CDBG (Community Development Block Grants) sources. The majority of this funding, $556,000, comes from reprograming unencumbered SHIP funds from Program Years 2017-2019. The City Commission routinely claims that it has an affordable housing crisis and criticizes the state legislature for diverting these funds away from housing, but despite all the virtue signaling, they apparently failed to spend the money over the past three years that was earmarked to help address this alleged crisis. Perhaps the City Commission was too busy traveling the world on taxpayer-funded junkets and expanding their carbon footprint in the midst of their self-proclaimed climate emergency to oversee the use of these state funds?  

6.  No Sacred Budget Cows. During the last City Commission meeting, Commissioner Johnson gave another lengthy speech about GARE (Government Alliance on Race and Equity) and how the equity toolbox must be applied to the implementation and distribution of money under the GNVCares program. Ironically, NOT A SINGLE PENNY of the $600,000+ equity budget increase approved by the City Commission last year is being used to help fund the GNVCares program. If equity is at issue, then it stands to reason that a substantial portion of the $600,000+ equity budget should actually be used to help fund the GNVCares in furtherance of addressing the equity concerns.

7.  Wasteful Use of Limited Taxpayer Resources. The “GNVCares About Businesses” portion of the GNVCares program proposes spending $125,000 to hire Capital Access (the City’s HUD subcontractor) to implement an online application program, administer funding, and assist staff in the review of applications for small business applicants. In a vast expansion of City government, the City has recently hired a plethora of new, highly-paid staff members, assistants, and interns.

Are we supposed to believe that none of these staff members are qualified and capable of doing this themselves? It is hard to believe that the City is not capable of making a simple web-based application form for this purpose to avoid the cost of hiring a vendor. Likewise, why doesn’t the City just make a PDF application form, put it on their website, and have applicants submit it? This would be much cheaper than paying a vendor $125,000 to make something more complicated than it needs to be.

8. Eligibility of Undocumented Persons. Will the City attempt to distribute taxpayer money to undocumented and homeless persons? Shouldn’t taxpayers come first if taxpayer money is being expended?

9. Affordable Housing Funds. As discussed above, the City’s failure to expend CDBG and SHIP funding (2017-2019), now being repurposed to fund the GNVCares program, raises many questions. In response to Alachua Chronicle questions regarding the use of these funds, the City provided the following response:

“In response to the shelter-in-place and social distancing associated with the COVID-19 crisis, many of our housing programs/projects have experienced delays in start-up and/or completion. Such delays, and the inability to maintain social distancing in order to undertake these activities, have curved the City of Gainesville Housing & Community Development Division’s and Partner Housing Agencies ability to expend its CDBG and SHIP funding allocation for the referenced years as projected.” 

Is the City really claiming that it hasn’t spent available SHIP funding dating back to 2017 because of COVID-19?

One political faction has run City government for over two decades. Why didn’t these folks (including Mayor Poe) fix the affordable housing problem before it allegedly became a “crisis” under their failed governance? How can a “crisis” exist if the City failed to deploy and expend all of the available funding? Perhaps the state auditor should investigate the City’s use of the SHIP funding.

In closing, representative democracy requires listening to the people.  Feel free to contact City Hall to voice your opinion and concerns:

Mayor Poe: PoeLB@cityofgainesville.org

City Commission: CityComm@cityofgainesville.org

City Manager:   FeldmanLR@cityofgainesville.org