The Gainesville City Commission unanimously approved the first reading for the next fiscal year’s property tax rate and budget, with a final vote coming on Sept. 21.
The commission decided on an increase from 5.5 mills to 6.4297 mills, resulting in a 29.2% tax increase compared with the rolled-back rate of 4.9764 mills. The change over the rolled-back rate and an increase in taxable assessed values will result in an extra $15.4 million.
The millage selected on Thursday represents the highest possible after the city selected a ceiling in July.
Overall, the city’s general fund will increase by $2.1 million, sitting at $156,419,483.
However, the commission hit a $1.1 million snag after approving the general government budget, leading to a 40-minute recess.
In the budget negotiations, City Manager Cynthia Curry and Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) General Manager Tony Cunningham have disagreed over whether general government or GRU should pay the $1.1 million to power streetlights in unincorporated Alachua County, resulting in neither budget containing the funding.
For the past 30 years, the general government has borne the cost. But, Curry said the general government couldn’t afford to pay it this year because of budget cuts. At the meeting, she read an Aug. 25 memo to Cunningham that stated this position.
Cunningham said the contract is written that the general government pay for the streetlights. After a request from the commission, GRU staff presented options on Aug. 9, saying that the utility would need to raise rates if it took over the cost.
At the meeting, GRU recommended only a 3% electricity rate increase instead of the 3.75% needed if the $1.1 million streetlight cost got transferred to the utility. The City Commission agreed with the 3% increase.
On Thursday, Cunningham reiterated that position, saying he would recommend the 0.75% increase if the money comes from the utility. The other option would be taking the funds from reserves, but that would mean throwing the utility’s debt reduction plan off.
After a 40-minute recess, the City Commission approved a proposal by Commissioner Bryan Eastman to have GRU find the extra $1.1 million that never made it into the utility or general government budgets. Eastman and Mayor Harvey Ward said they couldn’t figure out why the general government would cover the cost, saying it isn’t right for Gainesville citizens to pay for the lighting in the unincorporated area.
The motion gives GRU until Sept. 21 to find the funding, and several commissioners said on Thursday that they wouldn’t support an electricity rate increase above the 3% already approved.
The city faced a serious decrease in revenue this year after cutting the amount of money sent from GRU to the general government budget. That amount was $34 million last year, and the City Commission voted to make it $15.3 million for the next year.
That decision came after state leaders tasked Gainesville with reining in GRU’s debt, currently at $1.69 billion. A state audit also found that Gainesville needed a formula for the transfer from GRU to general government, which the city put in place earlier this year.
To make up for the reduction, Gainesville has planned to increase the property tax as shown above and increase utility taxes to gain $963,000 and increase the fire assessment to gain $2.9 million. The city is also slated to gain revenue from increased state revenue sharing, charges for service and miscellaneous revenue.
The city has also cut spending. Next year’s budget eliminates 125.5 full-time positions equivalents, with around 67 filled, resulting in an extra $8.3 million. The city also cut spending in the parks department and other services to the tune of $3.2 million.
GRU has also reduced operations and maintenance expenses, trying to streamline and tackle debt.
Since previous budget meetings, the city did receive a small increase in revenue than what was expected. On Thursday, Commissioner Ed Book asked if the commission might want to reduce the millage by 0.1 mills to make up for the extra revenue.
However, commissioners said the city was already operating without much room for error.
“I’m very worried that reducing that contingency is not going to give us enough wiggle room for what we experience,” Commissioner Casey Willits said.
Commissioner Bryan Eastman said he worried the new GRU Authority might further impact city revenues next year. That authority is scheduled to begin on Oct. 1.