At an iconic museum designed to preserve a part of Gainesville’s past, Mayor Lauren Poe talked about the future.
“Our diversity is one of our greatest assets. It is what makes us exceptional. It is what will lead us to our future. And it is the way that we intend to show the rest of the world what a new American city looks like. Today we celebrate our progress towards these goals but also acknowledge the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work that lay ahead.”
Poe delivered the State of the City address before a capacity lunchtime crowd at the historic Cotton Club Museum & Cultural Center in East Gainesville last week. His 3,500-word address, written by Poe and Communications Director Shelby Taylor, took just under 30 minutes and touched on a range of issues including crime, affordable housing, employment, wages, prison labor, the Gainesville Fire Rescue and Police Departments, homelessness, the 2020 census, the Community Reinvestment Agency (CRA), the Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), and the environment.
He also praised the city and its 10 departments for their accomplishments in 2019, and set new goals for the city commission in 2020, but the consistent theme throughout the address centered around equity, diversity, and inclusion for all the residents of Gainesville.
“I’ve said it many times before and I will say it again, one of the primary reasons I ran for public office was to help reduce the persistent equity gaps we face as a result of generational racial and economic discrimination. Along with many other neighbors, organizations, and institutions in our community, Gainesville has begun acknowledging the truth embedded within our own history and working on ways to reconcile and repair those truths in order to build a truly equitable community.”
Poe warned that the road to equity would not be an easy one, and will require sacrifice, understanding, and patience by all parties.
“This path has and will be uncomfortable. It will involve anger, remorse, hopelessness, blame, and apathy. But it will also include renewal, growth, unity, acceptance, hope, and love. For some of us, our most basic understanding of our community and our place within it will be challenged. We will have our privilege called out, and we will be held accountable for our biases. For others, you will be called upon to trust, when perhaps trust has not previously been earned or deserved. We will ask each of you: what are YOU willing to sacrifice? Sacrifices for better housing, schools, employment opportunities, environment, health, and mobility? Only when we are willing to make sacrifices as individuals, organizations and institutions, will we fully reconcile with the truth of our past and build a better future together.”
Poe went beyond the rhetoric and platitudes that are often the foundation of political speeches and addresses to announce actions that will be taken to create a level playing field in the community.
“Previously, we have presented equity as its own strategic priority. While well intentioned, it is evident that substantial progress can only be realized when equity is central to every aspect of our work. For that reason, your city commission has committed significant new resources to begin planting the seeds of change. Creating an equitable community is a monumental challenge — one that will take patience and persistence. The city has established an equity core team. This exceptional team of city staff will be instrumental in helping to design a racial equity toolkit for our city. Racial equity tools will help to ensure that equity is explicitly brought into the decision-making process, from inception to completion. Two full-time positions have been added to the Office of Equal Opportunity — soon to be renamed the Office of Equity and Inclusion — to focus exclusively on reducing internal inequities. A disparity study will soon be underway to help us identify gaps that exist in our current policies and contribute to inequitable outcomes and ensure that remedies enacted to combat inequities are legally defensible. In the short term, we have made immediate moves to improve the city’s pay equity practices, through more scrutiny on hiring and promotions practices.”
Florida is one of only a few states that still use unpaid inmate labor, but in January of 2019, the Gainesville City Commission voted 5-1 to terminate three contracts with the Florida Department of Corrections. Poe used the address to highlight the termination of the contract, and the emergence of 29 new jobs to take its place.
“Your city commission, working with our neighbors, made a resounding call for the elimination of inmate labor and we responded by ending the existing contractual agreement with the Florida Department of Corrections. The city has since committed nearly $1-million to create 29 new fair-wage jobs that will bring those services in-house.”
Gainesville Police (GPD) and Fire Rescue (GFR) Departments
It had been six years since the GPD was able to negotiate a contract with the city, and after a lawsuit in 2018, Poe was thrilled to announce closure to this contentious issue in his address. Poe also pointed out some unique approaches to public safety implemented in 2019 during this section of the address.
“This year, the City of Gainesville successfully negotiated a contract with our public safety units. This investment will help us retain and recruit people to serve in two of the best public safety organizations in the state. Our GPD leadership, along with the city manager, has been working with our immigrant advocates to make sure every neighbor is safe and, trusts our police department, and knows that our force will not be used to support ICE operations or do the federal government’s job.
He also praised the GPD, and GFR for their sacrifices, and service to the community.
“Our public safety units continually exemplify selfless service and that devotion goes well-beyond Gainesville city limits. In fact, six first responders from your Gainesville Fire Rescue team spent five days in Little Abaco, Bahamas, aiding in search and rescue efforts following Hurricane Dorian.
Poe announced an initial investment of $128,000 to develop a diversion and deflection program, which is designed to address the underlying social issues that perpetuate crime, and additional funding for youth programs.
“Incarceration as the first course of action, benefits no one. We have already shown incredible success with our co-responder mental health unit, and will continue doing more to keep our neighbors out of jail and pair them with the services they need. This is why the city is collaborating with Meridian Behavioral Health to build out a complete central receiving facility as a better alternative for individuals, families and law enforcement. Your commission has also provided an additional $80,000 in funding for youth internships, evening activities for teens and after-school programs. We can say with overwhelming confidence that creating opportunities for our youth to be engaged in positive activities, significantly decreases their chances of getting involved in less desirable activities, including crime. Funding programs, like these, help us to take a more proactive approach to policing and reflects our community’s values of collaboration, compassion and community building.”
An issue that seems to confront Gainesville residents at every traffic light is homelessness. It’s hard to imagine there is improvement, but Poe announced both uplifting and encouraging news about this chronic issue during his address.
“Unlike many communities that pursue criminalization as a solution to homelessness, we are doing just the opposite. Working collectively with GRACE Marketplace, the county and other community partners including the VA and mental health providers, we have successfully transitioned more than 60 of those living in Dignity Village to permanent housing, and nearly 100 others are moving onto the GRACE campus where we can ensure they are receiving the wrap-around services and support that they need. We know that housing ends homelessness and since GRACE opened its doors, homelessness has dropped by 36%.”
It’s an issue issue both in Gainesville and across the country, and Poe announced plans to confront housing, including a pilot program to begin in 2020.
“Affordable housing. Attainable housing. Accessible housing. Equitable housing. Whatever you wish to call it, we need more of it. The city has a talented group of professional housing staff and community development experts who have been working tirelessly to collect information from the community through a series of workshops, surveys and targeted outreach to ensure that the least heard, but most in need, are participating in our process. Using information collected, they will begin to draft a comprehensive affordable housing action plan to assist our neighbors that are waiting for a safe place to call home. In an effort to make early progress on our housing affordability goals, the city commission authorized the implementation of a pilot program that allowed for the donation of 12 city-owned residential parcels for the development of affordable housing by qualified local non-profits. Every resident deserves a safe, high quality and affordable place to live.”
The 2020 Census
According to Poe, undercounts during the 2010 census cost the community nearly $390 million in federal funding over the last decade. He is determined to have every resident in Gainesville counted accurately in 2020.
“An accurate census count in 2020 will ensure that Gainesville receives its fair share of funding to help finance these and several other social programs including health care, education, community development, job training and transportation. That is why the City of Gainesville is working to ensure a complete count in the 2020 and we are counting on each of you to do your part. Your engagement and participation is essential.”
In February of 2019, the Alachua County and Gainesville City Commissions voted to restructure the Gainesville CRA, a taxpayer-funded organization established in 1979 that helps revitalize and repair four blighted regions in the city. The agreement merged the four redevelopment areas into one district, and Poe was excited about its potential results.
“In the old CRA model, invisible boundaries separated four distinct districts—preventing the flow of dollars to certain projects, simply because of where it was located. The new CRA erases those invisible boundaries, significantly expanding our ability to select, fund and complete key capital improvement projects in our city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. Over the last 10 years, the CRA has made transformative change a reality in Gainesville.”
The city commission has often been criticized for its management of the GRU, citing the highest rates in Florida and an increased debt load, but Poe pushed back on the criticism.
“We have also been working to continue providing high-quality utility services through GRU while working to keep rates stable. GRU is consistently the most reliable utility in the state. Gainesville is first in the state for its use of renewable energy— using up to 42%, compared to the state average of 4%; and our municipal water system returns about 70% of the water withdrawn, back to the Floridian aquifer. Additionally, Gainesville is actively working to diversify its energy portfolio, aiming to triple our solar footprint by 2022. Yes, these investments for our energy future can have had an immediate impact on today’s utility rates. But residential electric rates are lower now than they were in 2008. Still, we understand the tremendous burden utility expenses can place on our income constrained neighbors and hear the calls of those in need. That is why GRU has provided more than 100 homeowners with energy-saving improvements this year through its Low-Income Energy-Efficiency Program.”
Poe was proud to announce an award Gainesville received from the United Nations and Arbor Day Foundation, as well as a goal to even more parks to every community.
“Each day is a new opportunity to make choices that positively influence our environment. So we encourage you, our neighbors, to replace disposable plastics with reusable, recyclable or compostable alternatives. We can also protect against threats to our natural environment through dedicated preservation efforts. Our Wild Spaces, Public Places program has safeguarded thousands of acres of environmentally-sensitive lands, while bringing the city closer to its goal of having a park within a 10-minute walk of all neighborhoods. Visitors can once again stroll among the wildlife and pine trees on the Duval Park boardwalk. The NW Fifth Avenue Park in the College Park neighborhood marked the completion of our first joint park in coordination with our partners at the Alachua County School Board. We have more great joint projects planned at Howard Bishop and Lincoln Middle Schools. And that’s not the only first. In fact, while 2019 presented its fair share of challenges, it also gave us the opportunity to celebrate other firsts. Being named a 2019 Tree City of the World by the United Nations and the Arbor Day Foundation. One of only 26 cities in the U.S. to receive this designation in honor of our effective urban forest management and environmental stewardship.”
Poe closed his address with a call to action for both the residents and the city commission of Gainesville.
“Our neighbors have called upon us to address monumental, historic and systemic community challenges — fewer arrests and less crime, fair housing, sustainability, fair wages, equitable access to transportation, more economic opportunity and better cultural options and inclusion. Your city commission is up for the challenge, and so are you. Let’s get to work.”