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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Storms, Teams and Budgets

Harvey Ward mayor of Gainesville

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

This past week the City of Gainesville, along with many other cities and counties across the coastal south, dealt with the effects of Hurricane Idalia. Gainesville and Alachua County were fortunate to miss the worst of the storm, but the sound of chainsaws could be heard across the city as fallen trees and limbs were cleared from roads, lawns and, yes, homes. 

I spent many hours with our excellent emergency services teams at the city’s Emergency Operations Center and was reminded how truly professional our city workers are. There is no team I would rather depend on in such a crisis than the one we have at the City of Gainesville. 

The good news is that they are your team as well. We are here to serve every resident, guest, neighbor in Gainesville, and that includes you. 

You should be proud of the folks providing municipal services to you here in our city, and you should rest easy knowing they are looking out for you.

Perhaps the best example of how well our city handled the storm is that about 24 hours after the tropical storm winds subsided, of the about 100,000 customers of Gainesville Regional Utilities, exactly one was still without power. That’s unheard of. With our community safe, our utility workers went to assist other communities who had more severe storm damage. 

In the coming week the Gainesville City Commission will need to pass the budgets for our general government (public safety, parks and culture, public works, etc.) and for our utility operations. Our fiscal year begins Oct. 1 each year, and our tradition has been to pass these budgets and their associated resolutions and ordinances at our two regular meetings in September. 

This is a very different budget year for the City of Gainesville than we are used to. In response to direction from the Florida legislature, last spring the city commission made drastic changes to the funds transferred from our municipal utility operations (GRU) to our general government operations. 

Traditionally our city had kept local taxes relatively low by using this transfer of funds as a way for UF and other entities that do not pay local taxes to pay their fair share for the services they receive from the city. We enacted plans to reduce that transfer by more than half, which means we had to create a general government budget with a revenue reduction of more than 10%. 

We are doing that in several ways. We’re reducing the general government workforce by about 10%  — 125 positions — and we will all feel that reduction in workforce as a reduction in services. Make no mistake, the remaining workers will continue to show up and be the creative, hard-working professionals they are, and you will continue to count on basic government services, but there will be things that don’t work quite as well as we’re used to. 

We are also meeting this challenge by increasing city property taxes. The city will still have a lower tax rate than our local public school taxes and our county taxes, and there are many cities across Florida that will continue to have a higher tax rate than ours, but it will be felt. 

Through all of this, we are not only maintaining most services, but we are also planning to increase spending on public safety, including police and fire rescue services. Keeping the people of our community safe will continue to be a priority. 

We also have a variety of separate funds not subject to these reductions, and you will see them continue to make this a better place to thrive. We will be working harder than ever to develop collaborative projects with Alachua County, Santa Fe College, UF, state departments and federal partners. 

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This is a challenging budget season, but we will come out of it strong. We will continue to support you and all of our neighbors in a way you will be proud of. 

The Alligator has graciously offered me this opportunity as your mayor to communicate with you regularly in this space, and I hope to use it to help you become more connected to your city government. 

If you have questions or concerns, I hope you will reach out to me directly at wardhl@gainesvillefl.gov. I’m glad you are part of this community, and I appreciate you taking a moment to read this column.


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