Special to the Sun: Time for a Taxpayer-Ratepayer Revolt?
Comments provided to the City Commission on July 18, 2019 (#190137 and #190140):
First, I would like to submit a copy of my Special to the Sun entitled “Time for a Taxpayer-Ratepayer Revolt?”, which appeared in the Sunday, July 14, 2019 edition of the Gainesville Sun, Issues Section, page 2, as well as a summary of my supplemental comments from the podium tonight, July 18, 2019, for the record.
Second, what you are hearing from the public tonight is that you should not raise taxes and utilities rates and fees, without first making a more serious effort to cut costs and streamline city government.
In my experience, one effective way to cut a government budget is to direct an "across the board" percentage reduction, let’s say, 10 percent, and direct all departments to determine how they would make the cuts and still continue essential services. If you show the courage to do this, you will find that every department knows where the waste is and what it takes to continue essential services at the level the public has come to expect. Given the expansion of city government in recent years, you should also reduce city personnel costs, one of the largest drivers of annual government operating costs. Start with top executive positions and salaries, particularly those added during the previous City Manager’s tenure.
Another option already presented to you, but apparently rejected, is a hiring freeze. Perhaps this was rejected because it conflicts with your recent policy votes to end prison labor and hire new full-time employees (FTEs) to do this work, as well as to convert 31 former GREC contract workers to full-time GRU employees. You apparently agreed to this without enough thought for how the City would pay for either initiative. The same goes for the otherwise worthwhile goal to pay all city employees a “living wage”. It would not be the first time a public body had to vote against, or delay, an initiative it had earlier approved, because it could not afford it.
"Line-by-line" exercises by politicians sounds good but rarely works. Inevitably, there are too many pet projects folks will vigorously defend, and in your case, some have received 7-0 support. As children we were all expected to learn the difference between “needs” and “wants”. The same is true in government -- it requires maturity, discipline, and fiscal responsibility.
Here is the “bottom line”: it would be a serious failure of your civic duty to impose higher taxes and higher utility rates -- measures that will hurt most those you say you are trying to help, just because you can. They should be either be rejected outright, or submitted to a public referendum.
Vote “No” on this proposed budget.
1639 NW 11th Road
Gainesville, FL 32605-5319 (Email: email@example.com; Cell: (352) 665-9296)
Special to the Sun: Time for a Taxpayer-Ratepayer Revolt?
In a preliminary budget vote on June 5, 2019, the Gainesville City Commission voted 4-3 (with Commissioners Johnson, Simmons, and Ward dissenting) to increase electric rates by 6.4 percent and property taxes by 11.5 percent in order to cover a $12 million-dollar revenue shortfall. Final votes on the budget are due very soon. Will your voice be heard?
Gainesville Regional Utility (GRU) customers will also see increases for other utility services. For example, the fire assessment fee will go up by 32 percent in order to cover rising costs. According to the Sun, the Commission has not made any cuts in its budget, with the exception of about $790,000 in reduced pension payments. Nor has the Commission indicated a willingness to cut back on any special projects, such as the broadband infrastructure initiative, which could cost as much as $120 million.
The Mayor says “you cannot starve government into greatness”. The public can understand rising operating costs. However, it is difficult to understand how anyone can justify placing the primary burden for past mistakes, such as the 2017 purchase of the wood-burning biomass plant, on the backs of ordinary citizens, especially those who already struggle to pay their utility bills, rather than making sensible cuts. Where is the equity in that?
According to GRU’s own financial statements (September 2018), much of these increases are required just to “service” the enormous GRU debt, that is, to pay back interest and principal totaling $2,437,029,000 (nearly two and a half billion dollars) over the next 28 years (through 2047). Of that amount, about $1.2 billion is due to the 2017 buyout of the GREC biomass plant ($750 million plus interest over 30 years).
The September 2018 debt calculation doesn’t count the additional $70 million or so of new borrowing plus interest quietly agreed to in February in order to offset lower GRU profits caused by the public’s conservation efforts. So, because we conserved power, we must pay more?
Other choices were presented to the Commission. A GRU staff presentation on February 28, 2019 estimated that over $6,160,000 could be saved by a hiring freeze. “Personal services” related cuts and related expense reductions could save $1,678,000. An eight percent cut across all departments could allegedly save a million dollars (estimate seems low). Other cuts could save $332,000. Of course, this was budgeting by PowerPoint, not an in-depth review.
During the recent election campaign, I warned voters that very difficult budget decisions were ahead and called for fiscal responsibility. Challengers to the Mayor promised a “line by line” review of the budget. Obviously, that was not a popular “feel good” message, nor a winning one. We assumed the Commission would have to cut staff, implement a hiring freeze, and scale back some of its most ambitious programs. It was inconceivable that a Commission majority could justify more borrowing, significantly higher property taxes, and ever higher utility rates and fees, without making any real cuts, and do so with impunity. Will you rise up to stop them?