Through budget cuts – including close to 100 staff positions – Gainesville has trimmed its budget deficit from approximately $18 million to just under $1.7 million, City Manager Cynthia Curry said at a special budget meeting Wednesday.
However, that deficit rose again at the end of the meeting as the City Commission voted unanimously to direct staff to restore $475,000 in funding, including money trimmed from grants to arts and culture organizations, senior transportation services and the Early Learning Coalition and from a GRACE Marketplace program for homeless services.
Previous to Wednesday’s meeting, Ironwood Golf Course also was added back to the budget for fiscal year 2024, Curry said.
Because of a large debt load for the city’s Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), state lawmakers have required the city to make some substantial budget cuts, including slashing the annual amount of GRU revenue that was transferred to the general government side. This general services contribution – formerly called the general fund transfer – dropped 55% from $34 million in fiscal year 2023 and will be $15.3 million in 2024.
A rise in property value and expected 1 mill increase in the city’s property tax is expected to add $14.9 million to the budget in 2024, but that will not erase the drop in general services contribution.
Additionally, because of contractual wage obligations, the budgets of both the Gainesville Police Department and Gainesville Fire Rescue will increase rather than decrease in 2024.
The cuts that helped the city get closer to a balanced budget have fallen heavier on other parts of city government including public services such as Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, Sustainable Development and youth services.
GRU is eliminating 20 positions, and the general government side is cutting around 70 positions, of which approximately 75% are vacant positions but 25% are currently filled.
Among the filled positions being eliminated is the risk management director’s post. Steve Varvel has been the risk management director and is now the acting director for the office of management and budget. In the acting role, Varvel has been leading the budget discussions and on Wednesday he presented his own eliminated position in risk management.
“Here today; gone tomorrow,” Varvel said with a laugh.
Varvel said that Curry had approached him about merging some of the functions of the offices and in the process eliminating a senior management position.
“There is nobody that is bigger than the organization,” said Varvel, who said he likely would be interested in the permanent director of the office of management and budget position. “I have been planning and preparing the people that work for me in the management positions in risk management to be able to hit the ground and not miss a beat when I retire. I have good people and that’s why I am able to do this.”
Mayor Harvey Ward praised the work and the willingness of city staff to make adjustments and of certain staffers, like Varvel, to change positions.
“This is a high functioning team willing to make personal sacrifices, and I appreciate it,” Ward said.
Curry told the commission that the city had established a pipeline committee, chaired by Human Resources Director Laura Graetz, to help people in eliminated positions to find other positions within the city as well as work with the county and outside agencies to help place people who can’t find new positions within the city.
While administrative services such as risk management and human resources and departments such as marketing and communications collectively presented several million dollars worth of cuts on Wednesday, it was the $750,000 that was removed from GRACE Marketplace that generated the bulk of the comments from commissioners.
The city has a 5-year contract with the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry that funds a low-barrier emergency shelter run by GRACE Marketplace as well as direct services such as meals to the area’s homeless people.
As part of an agreement with Alachua County, the city has provided $1.5 million a year for the emergency shelter and direct services while the county has spent $1.5 million each year to provide long-term supportive housing, said Commissioner Bryan Eastman. The proposed budget presented Wednesday cut the city’s allocation in half.
Eastman said the programs funded by the city not only take care of a vulnerable population, but also save the city in police, fire and public works costs.
“I worry we’re going to take a very large step back, and it’s going to cost us a lot more money in other areas while hurting the people who are most in need in our community,” Eastman said. “I would really like to find a way to take care of this in a more empathetic and humane way.”
Ward echoed Eastman’s comments, saying that 10 years ago, homeless camps were causing both public safety and public health hazards and that GRACE Marketplace’s work had significantly impacted the homeless population and also had saved the city public safety money as a result.
“We’re going to spend more money from our public safety budgets than we’re going to save by not spending more money on this than the $750,000 [in the budget],” Ward said.
Curry said that given the cuts that already had occurred, restoring $750,000 to the GRACE program might mean more job cuts with as many as 12 to 13 positions at risk to make up that amount.
Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut rejected the idea that city staff would be cut to fund homeless services and said the city provided funding to other needed programs in the community that support seniors and provide after school care.
“I don’t see how in the world we can fund a GRACE marketplace at $1.5 million dollars and not fund our own staff, not bring our own people back and provide for senior citizens,” Chestnut said. “Senior citizens must be provided for as well as these after school programs.”
A compromise restored some of the GRACE marketplace funding but not all of it and restored money cut from cultural programming funding, senior mobility and the Early Learning Coalition.
The city’s budget is expected to be finalized on Sept. 21. The City Commission will set the preliminary fire assessment at its regular meeting Thursday and the maximum tax rate at its July 20 meeting.