Tuesday’s second mayoral debate covered familiar territory about Gainesville issues as candidates Harvey Ward and Ed Bielarski made their pitches in the home stretch before the Nov. 8 elections.
The debate, which took place at UF, covered utility rates, student housing, gun violence and immigrant inclusion with questions coming from a panel of journalists. The candidates covered many of the topics at their first debate last week.
However, the candidates also asked each other one question at the end of the night.
Ward asked if Bielarski supported the combined Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) and infrastructure surtax that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. If not, he wanted to know how Bielarski would plan to fund projects such as parks and Citizens Field renovations?
Bielarski said he does support WSPP and called it a wonderful program. He said Ward’s past explanations of how the program could be used at Citizens Field educated him on the matter.
“I think that’s actually a very good use of those monies,” Bielarski said.
With his two-minute rebuttal, Ward voiced his support and encouraged residents to vote in favor of the ballot question.
“It also allows us to do things like improve Citizens Field which is something that anybody who’s spent any time in Gainesville is connected to,” Ward said. “It’s the kind of thing that brings our community together.”
Ward said the city hasn’t accomplished any serious work on the stadium for 40 years. The Alachua County school district rents Citizens Field for a dollar a year, and that contract ends next year.
He said the city and school board need to discuss the needs of the field and find a way to finance them—like WSPP.
Bielarski asked Ward how he would cut city costs so that Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) can avoid its more than $30 million transfer each year. Bielarski noted that the general government budget had grown from $107 million in 2016 to $154 million in 2023.
Ward said the city’s planned annual reduction of $14 million in the fund transfers, which will take full effect in 2027, will lower dependence on GRU while expected revenue growth fills in the gaps on the general government side.
“The idea that we’re going to take about 10% of the general government budget and yank it away all at once is not responsible,” Ward said.
He also said Bielarski’s base numbers were off since the first budget he voted on was for 2018, then questioned Bielarski’s trustworthiness. Bielarski said the timeframe wasn’t supposed to relate to Ward’s voting.
Bielarski said that even with the $14 million reduction, the city will be receiving more than $20 million from GRU per year. He pointed to increases in the general government and department budgets and said the community has had to fund the larger budgets.
“The burden on the community, property taxes, have went up 67.5%,” Bielarski said. “Now you didn’t vote for property tax increases, but you never did the rollback rate.”