In light of pressure from state lawmakers, the Gainesville City Commission heard proposals for drastic cuts for the 2024 fiscal year budget at a special meeting Wednesday.
The 2024 budgets for public safety departments like the Gainesville Police Department and Gainesville Fire Rescue will increase while funding for public service initiatives, such as youth support programs and the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs department, face severe cuts, according to the meeting presentation.
The changes will help narrow the city’s budget deficit from roughly $18 million to approximately $1.7 million, Gainesville City Manager Cynthia Curry said.
Before commissioners concluded the meeting, they raised the deficit to around $2.1 million to expand proposed funding pools for some expenses, such as homelessness resources nonprofit GRACE Marketplace, youth-related grants and senior citizen support services.
The steep budget cuts come after the Florida Legislature demanded Gainesville officials work to lower Gainesville Regional Utilities’ $1.7 billion debt earlier this year.
City commissioners acknowledged their disappointment in having to impose significant cuts, but they expressed their gratitude for the city staff members who helped produce the proposed 2024 budget.
“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.”
The 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.
Toward the beginning of the presentation, the city’s marketing director Jennifer Smart discussed a proposal to remove closed captions on recordings of “advisory board and other meetings,” saving $37,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. The city would still provide closed captions for City Commission and General Policy meeting recordings, Smart said.
However, to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Smart explained the elimination of closed captions would likely mean specified meetings would no longer be available publicly in video form. Without video access, community members would have to attend meetings in-person or read published meeting minutes to stay informed on affected meetings.
Disagreement among commissioners arose during comments about the presentation’s proposal to reduce funding for non-departmental expenses, like GRACE Marketplace, by 50% 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 5-year contract with the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry to help manage GRACE Marketplace, 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 dismissed.
Chestnut stressed the importance of funding other programs, such as after-school initiatives and senior citizen transportation services.
“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 At-Risk Youth Seed Grant, arts and culture initiatives and senior citizen transportation services.
The city is expected to confirm the 2024 budget during a public hearing Sept. 21.
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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.