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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Budget adjustments spur questions about Gainesville’s approach to gun violence prevention

In an amended budget, the city proposed to reallocate $400,000 in gun violence prevention and at-risk youth programs

Amanda Goldsmith was only 17 when she was shot by a man she refused to date. Twenty-three years later, she is a volunteer with Moms Demand Action and uses her experience to educate the Gainesville community. 

“This is my path,” she said. “My purpose is to reach survivors, to get them resources and to bring about the awareness that this is a growing public health issue.” 

She first told her story publicly at a city commission meeting in February 2023, when Gainesville declared gun violence a public health crisis. More than a year later, she is back at city hall, hoping to protect funding meant for gun violence prevention programs.

The Gainesville Regional Utility, trying to recover funds from the city, left a $1.4 million hole in the city’s budget. And more holes are likely to come, as GRU wants to slash the $15.3 million General Services Contribution it pays to the city. 

Cutting the GSC would lead to city-wide budget cuts, according to a memo sent by City Manager Cynthia Curry. Gun violence prevention is no exception — the city proposed at its Feb. 15 meeting to reallocate $400,000 in gun violence prevention and at-risk youth reserves to help rebalance its budget. 

Although the commission preserved $150,000 for prevention programs by cutting money from unstarted projects, $250,000 set aside for at-risk youth programming was reallocated elsewhere. This move prompted community members to question the viability of the city’s approach toward gun violence prevention.

“I urge the city to think outside the box and work closely with your community partners and advocates to keep our communities safe,” Goldsmith said to the commission.

At the State of the City address Feb. 12, Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward lauded the city’s efforts to address gun violence throughout 2023. To date, he said the city has spent $53 million toward gun violence prevention and created a new staff position, a gun violence prevention and intervention manager, to begin work in early March.

This position is separate from the police and is funded until 2026 by American Rescue Plan Act funds, the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. 

The money on the chopping block would be used by this manager to create programs within the community. However, City Commissioner Bryan Eastman, a member of the City Finance Committee, said the necessity of filling budget holes was greater than the need to keep money for later. 

“The decision [was] to either lay off staff members and existing programs or to shut down a program that had funding behind it but had not been stood up yet,” Eastman said. “There's no people that would go home without a job in the morning because of the decision we have made. That may not be true for the next one.” 

He said the city will listen and respond to the community to set priorities for future budgetary decisions.

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However, some community members feel the cuts help reveal the city’s perspective on gun violence prevention. 

“They want to justify [cutting funds] as if it’s something trivial, or some philosophical debate, or what we got is addressing jobs,” said Chanae Jackson, organizer for Florida For All, a statewide coalition aiming to fight for a democracy, justice system and economy that affords all people the freedom to live their own version of the American Dream, according to its mission statement. 

In October 2023, she wrote an open letter to the city commission calling for increased funding for youth organizations and community-based solutions to gun violence, which received 215 signatures. She said cutting the $400,000 would hinder that goal. 

“Over and over again, they showed that the priorities are not our young Black youth,” she said. 

She recommended money be taken away from the police department. Although state law prohibits local governments from reducing law enforcement budgets without state approval, Jackson said the city shouldn’t continue to raise the Gainesville Police Department’s budget. 

GPD saw a 5.1% increase in its general budget, compared to 2023, and received $9 million of the city’s $53 million gun violence prevention pool. It used these funds to bankroll the Brave, Overt Leaders of Distinction Program; gun buybacks, increased place-based policing and other initiatives. 

Throughout these funding increases, Gainesville also saw a 30% rise in gun-related deaths, going from 10 in 2022 to 14 in 2023, according to GPD data. And two people have died since the start of the year, with 13 incidents of shots being fired.

“How is it that you keep giving them money to reduce crime, but crime is going up?” Jackson asked.

As the city moves past this budget decision, harder ones certainly loom in the future. 

Susan Bowder, 76, is also a volunteer at Moms Demand Action. She lost her daughter Sarah to gun violence in 2012, in an incident stemming from domestic abuse. She said gun violence is related to numerous socio-economic issues, such as lack of education and family dysfunction. She emphasized the importance of long-term, continued funding. 

“We have to start with protecting our youngest children so that they don't grow into victims or criminals,” she said. “I can’t think of a greater priority.”

Contact Henry DeAngelis at Follow him on X @hadeangelis.

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Henry DeAngelis

Henry DeAngelis is a third-year journalism major and the City and County Commission reporter for the Alligator. In his free time, you can find him on the basketball court or deep in a good book.

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