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Thursday, November 30, 2023

State decisions continue to guide Gainesville City Commission budget cuts

Public service programs will receive the largest cuts to narrow budget deficit

This article has been updated to reflect that there will be an expected 1 mil increase to Gainesville’s property tax. The Alligator initially reported otherwise.

Efforts to combat Gainesville Regional Utilities’ rising debt could come at the expense of homeowners as well as public service initiative funding, according to state decisions and the city’s 2024 fiscal year budget proposals. 

The Gainesville City Commission heard and discussed 2024 budget proposals for public safety, public services, administration services and non-departmental expenses at a special meeting June 14. A bill looking to put GRU under state control arrived at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office the same day.

House Bill 1645, which would transfer GRU control from Gainesville to the state through a governor-appointed board, looks to tackle GRU’s $1.7 billion debt. Now, the bill awaits DeSantis' signature.

City commissioners like Reina Saco are unsure what financial impacts residents may see if HB 1645 is signed into law, including a possible rise in utility rates. The city retained counsel to fight against the bill, Saco said.

“It's kind of a black hole of guessing,” she said. “Once the matter is settled one way or the other, we will have absolute numbers we can move forward with and plan for the future.”

By July 1, the city will confirm whether residents will see a rise in property value and a 1 mil increase in Gainesville’s property tax, raising annual costs for property owners. The property tax increase would garner $14.9 million in revenues for the city. 

Saco acknowledges the increase would upset some residents, but said it could be helpful in preserving some of the city’s community development initiatives. 

“I will happily pay if that is the difference between Gainesville remaining a city with amazing services or losing some of those services,” she said.

The Florida Legislature’s demands to lower GRU’s debt earlier this year caused significant budget revision for the 2024 fiscal year as well.

While budgets for public safety departments like the Gainesville Police Department and Gainesville Fire Rescue will increase, funding for public service initiatives, including youth support programs and the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs department, face severe cuts. 

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However, commissioners unanimously voted to partially reinvest in multiple community initiatives and grant programs toward the end of the special meeting, putting the city’s current 2024 budget deficit at approximately $2.1 million.

City leaders felt imposing significant cuts to close the budget deficit was difficult to navigate.

“This is hard,” Mayor Harvey Ward said. “There is nothing easy about this process. Staff has done an unbelievable job working to get us to this point.”

Another revision avenue is a drastic decrease in the government services contribution, which is the annual portion of GRU revenue allocated to general government funds. The fund was $34 million for the 2023 budget but is expected to be $15.3 million for 2024. 

The 2024 budget proposals would also eliminate around 70 staff positions. Curry announced human resources director Laura Graetz will chair a pipeline committee to help those affected by position eliminations find new opportunities.

Disagreement among commissioners arose during the special meeting concerning the presentation’s proposal to reduce funding for non-departmental expenses, like homeless shelter and service center GRACE Marketplace, by half of what they received for the previous fiscal year. 

Gainesville provides $1.5 million per year to GRACE Marketplace’s efforts, including emergency shelter and meal services, through a partnership with the county, which also provides an additional $1.5 million a year to the nonprofit. 

The city also has a five-year contract with the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry to help manage GRACE Marketplace, City Commissioner Bryan Eastman said. 

Eastman, who formerly served as GRACE Marketplace's vice-chair, cautioned commissioners about making significant cuts to the nonprofit's funding due to the possible ripple effect on other departments. 

“We're reading a lot of research coming out of that time period about how much we spend on police and fire and medical services,” he said. “How much money you save simply by treating people with compassion on the front end versus the back end.” 

In response, Curry said restoring funding for GRACE Marketplace to its previous levels would involve pulling from public safety budgets and cutting up to 13 jobs, which City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut disputed. 

Chestnut urged the commission to prioritize funding other initiatives, including after-school programs and senior citizen transportation services, in addition to GRACE Marketplace.

“We're trying to be all things to all people, and we cannot do that,” Chestnut said. “We cannot balance senior citizens, children, all of our other programs on the backs of the homeless.”

Commissioners reached a compromise by unanimously voting to reinstate $475,000 in funding for non-departmental expenses like GRACE Marketplace, the Early Learning Coalition, arts and culture initiatives and senior citizen transportation services. 

Saco is pleased the commission found a way to reinvest in community initiatives like GRACE Marketplace but still worries about how the budget cuts for public service efforts will impact locals and surrounding communities that lack Gainesville’s resources, she said.

“The situation has really forced us to consider ‘What do we see as vital municipal services while not diminishing the quality of life?’” she said. “It is difficult to be the leader of those services for a region while only being able to receive revenue through our own individual residents.”

The city is expected to confirm the 2024 budget during a public hearing Sept. 21. DeSantis must act on HB 1645 by June 29.

Contact Amanda at Follow her on Twitter @amandasfriedman.

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Amanda Friedman

Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the Enterprise Editor at The Alligator. She previously wrote for the Avenue, Metro and University desks. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching coming-of-age films and listening to Ariana Grande. 

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