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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Gainesville’s city audit controversy, explained

Officials say it’s more coincidence than corruption

After delayed financial reports to the state, the Gainesville city auditor’s resignation and planned international commission trips, some local residents are worried about their tax dollars.

Four successive issues led to local concern: a formal letter from the state about late city financial reports, three city commissioners traveling to Israel off public funds, the city auditor’s resignation and budget changes made Nov. 17.

Gainesville’s upcoming fiscal budget is around $445 million, with about $14 million of general fund debt made up of bonds and other obligations.  

Juli Aitch, Gainesville resident, said recent decisions were irresponsible given the situation.“They are robbing the citizens of Gainesville,” Aitch said.

However, Gainesville city officials say the series of financial controversies were both expected and planned for.

Commissioners’ trip to Israel

City Commissioners David Arreola and Adrian Hayes-Santos, as well as Mayor Lauren Poe will travel to Israel for MuniWorld, an international city government conference. The three will leave Dec. 2, just over a month before they all exit office after reaching their term limit.

MuniWorld is a three-day convention for cities across the globe. Participants will see Jerusalem’s tech startup projects, connect with other municipalities and watch lectures on local government practices.

The attendance fee is $200 per person and accommodations are $600, according to its website.

City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut first expressed concern over the trip, calling it a waste of money given the city’s financial circumstances.

“This international trip taken by commissioners with expenses paid by public funds is disingenuous to all our constituents,” Chestnut wrote in an email to them.

For each fiscal year, commissioners receive a $5,000 stipend for travel. The 2023 fiscal year began Oct. 1. Chestnut also said the trip would take travel funding away from oncoming commissioners, though Arreola and Hayes-Santos said that was inaccurate.“When the new commission is sworn in, they will have their own budgets,” Arreola said.

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Commissioners expect to pay between $1,500 and $2,000 per person between travel and hotel stays in Israel, Arreola added. While there, the commissioners will also visit two sister cities; Kfar Saba, Israel, and Qalqilya, Palestine.

The programs are valuable as it allows mutual economic development and promotes cultural exchange on the local level, Poe said.

“This is really consistent with the relationship Gainesville has been cultivating going back a few decades,” Poe said.

State audit letter 

Florida’s joint-legislative auditing committee sent a letter to Gainesville Nov. 4, stating the city’s 2020-2021 financial report was late.

Annual financial report audits list the total number of city employees, compensations for them and every major expenditure and revenue gained by Gainesville during its financial year.

If not sent in by Dec. 19, Gainesville could lose state funding.

The delays were a result of understaffing, Poe said, with four charter officers being in the interim and a software change for financial reporting midway through the year. As a result, city staff had to pull records from two different software.

“It just created complications that were both unanticipated and created a lot of time,” Poe said.

Gainesville informed the state it would be late in advance, he added.

The city manager handles external financial audits. Cynthia Curry currently serves as interim city manager while the city looks for potential candidates in the coming months.

Gainesville is one of 42 other municipalities that are yet to submit their audit, according to a Gainesville Sun report. The city’s audit committee is expected to have an update at its meeting Dec. 13.

“It’s been our goal and all of our efforts to make sure we reach that goal,” Poe said.

City auditor resigns

Just days after the state letter, City Auditor Ginger Bigbie resigned from her position Nov. 8.Bigbie declined to comment, but said she left Election Day to prevent voter sway during campaign efforts. She also thanked the Gainesville City Commission for her time.

“I will continue to champion strong governance as the City strives to achieve its objectives and instill public trust,” her resignation letter read.

Bigbie resigned so she could focus more on spending time with her family, she said.

Despite its title, the city auditor actually isn’t involved in the state audit, but rather checks internal processes within the city. Internal audits can include performance and equity evaluations, while an external one like the state’s only concerns financial reports.

Bigbie will still serve until Jan. 13, when an interim or temporary city auditor will replace her.

Her resignation marks the most recent of a string of vacancies the city has experienced over the past two years. The city manager resigned Sept. 13, 2021, following gender discrimination allegations and the city clerk and attorney sent resignation letters Sept. 8, 2021. 

The City Commission also fired the Gainesville Regional Utilities manager Jan 27. 

The city expects to implement a program to search for candidates for office in a future meeting, though, as of Sunday afternoon, no date is scheduled.

Recent budget changes

The Gainesville City Commission approved budget changes to the current fiscal year in a 6-0 vote Nov. 17, with Reina Saco absent. 

The budget is an over $750,000 net increase across multiple city budgets, looking to raise funding for fire rescue, law enforcement and natural park development plans. 

Fire rescue saw an additional $1.42 million in funding, police increased by $767,000 and $179,782 will be spread across three nature parks.

Funding comes in part from the one-cent Wild Spaces Public Places tax, which passed Nov. 8. 

The Wild Spaces Public Places is a one-cent tax across the county on non-essential goods. Gainesville is expected to receive over $17.4 million in annual revenue from the tax, which it will dedicate to environmental issues, affordable housing efforts and road repair.

Strategy, Planning and Development offices and the Parks and Recreation department among others saw significant budget cuts.

The Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department will receive $1 million less in funding. The city’s Strategy, Planning and Innovation Department is reduced by $805,000. Transportation will also be given a $704,000 deduction.

The budget increases were routine efforts, with no specific instance pressuring the changes, Hayes-Santos said.“It’s just normal budget changes that we do,” Hayes-Santos said.

Contact Aidan at Follow him on Twitter @aidandisto.

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Aidan Bush

Aidan Bush is a third-year journalism major and the Spring 2024 Engagement Managing Editor of The Alligator. In his free time, he likes to listen to music and go kayaking.

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