The Gainesville City Commission and the Alachua Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) have opted to bring in a mediator to settle a conflict involving $2.6 million in CARES Act funds.
In a joint meeting on Monday, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe expressed a desire for both parties to “reach an equitable conclusion” by the end of the evening.
“We are still battling a pandemic despite what some folks in Miami Beach might think,” Poe said. He said he wants to avoid further conflict over the $2,611,581.66 the city says the BOCC had planned to distribute to Gainesville to cover public safety funds incurred during the pandemic.
“We need to keep our focus on keeping our citizens safe,” Poe said.
The city claims the county is withholding the funds in retaliation after receiving a bill from GRUCom services in the amount of $1,638,415.23 for the shared cost of its subscription fee for the Gainesville public safety radio system.
BOCC Chair Ken Cornell opposed the city’s move to enter into a conflict over the issue.
“I really don’t think we should be here,” he said. “But we are willing to hear what colleagues across the street have to say.”
City Commissioner Gail Johnson immediately made a motion to obtain a neutral third party involved to lead the two parties in a discussion and to come up with a solution. The motion died with the absence of a second.
City Manager Lee Feldman said the county received $11.3 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) and some of that amount was earmarked for distribution to cover Public Safety Presumption funds of county and municipal agencies.
According to Feldman, the county was going to award Gainesville $2,611,581.66, but, in an amended notice of the distributions, that line item and amount was removed.
Feldman says in a text between himself and County Manager Michele Lieberman that she indicated, “The board decided to set aside $8.5 million for future needs primarily because we do not know the outcome of the trunk radio system issue with GRU and they wanted to have the capital available and not have to raise taxes in the worst case scenario. The $2.6 mil [million] is included in the $8.5 [million] set aside.”
The city is seeking the original $2,611,581.66 to be paid.
Poe asked for the county to act consistently as they had when allocating funds to High Springs and the City of Alachua and requested they honor the original disbursement rather than enter a lengthy and costly conflict resolution process.
Cornell said “everything was done correctly” and the city was not treated unfairly.
“The citizens of the City of Gainesville and many of the businesses received the largest portion of CARES Act funds,” he said. “We spent the money in accordance with the Treasury’s guidance and governor’s order.
Cornell suggested that the BOCC declare an impasse.
Commissioner Charles Chestnut agreed with Johnson that a mediator would be needed and moved to declare an impasse. In a unanimous vote, the motion passed.
Commissioner Johnson then made the same motion to declare impasse and engage in third party mediator, which Commissioner Harvey Ward seconded.
Ward then made a statement to remind everyone that that mediation process isn’t free and will diminish the amount of money that will give relief to people who need it.
Once the motion for an impasse was on the floor for a city vote, the county declined to answer any further questions asked by city commissioners other than Lieberman saying she didn’t agree with the facts as presented by the city.
City Commissioner David Arreola disagreed with the motion to declare an impasse and said the city should first determine if the county has acted incorrectly.
“I do believe because that because these are federal disbursements that it would behoove us to get an opinion from the federal agencies as to how these funds are supposed to be used, and if it is the opinion of the Alachua County Commission that your discussions and usage of the funds is entirely up to you all, that is your position. I want to know if that is a correct position in the eyes of the federal Congress, especially given that other cities received their disbursements.”
The city voted 4-1 to declare an impasse with Arreola in dissent.