Commission candidates tackle buses, bills and business

The utility bills from Gainesville Regional Utility are too high for residents and the Regional Transit System doesn’t serve working families as well as it could, two candidates for the Gainesville District I City Commission seat agreed at an online forum Tuesday evening.

Incumbent Gigi Simmons and challenger Desmon Duncan-Walker answered a list of pre-set questions at the forum, which was sponsored by the Gainesville-Alachua County Association of Realtors and moderated by Carl Shenning, a local broker and Realtor.

The association provided both candidates a set of questions beforehand and left time for user-submitted questions at the end. However, no one posed additional questions via Facebook during the Zoom-based live stream, which ended before the 40-minute mark.

During the debate both candidates agreed that Gainesville Regional Utility (GRU) rates negatively affect housing affordability, the Regional Transit System (RTS) falls short of serving working families and that the city needs to recruit additional businesses to provide more good-paying jobs.

Despite agreeing on many fundamentals, the two women differentiated themselves in at least four ways.

Bringing the GRU bills down

Simmons said the amount of debt GRU carries is one of the reasons utility rates continue to increase. She has voted against GRU rate hikes during her first term and said the city may need to look at reducing the amount of the general fund transfer (GFT) from the utility to the city to bring down bills.

The GFT represents about 30 percent of GRU’s net operating revenues, according to the GRU website. Gainesville uses it to help fund general government operations, including police, fire, transportation, and parks and recreation.

Lowering the amount of the GFT may decrease the level of services the city is able to provide, Simmons said, while acknowledging the city needs to look at “how can we have that transfer at a place our neighbors can afford their utility bill.”

Duncan-Walker said she wants to look at issues with the marketplace and at what types of agreements the utility has with energy providers, in addition to “redistributing budgetary funds.”

“We need to be making rates something we all can afford,” she said.

Making the RTS work for more people

RTS was described by the moderator and the candidates as being better for students than for residents who depend on it to go to work and access shopping, health care and other services.

Duncan-Walker said she hears from RTS users who say that the routes don’t intersect well, waits are often long and service ends too early.

“People have needs after 6 and 7 o’clock,” Duncan-Walker said. “This is essentially a curfew put on poor people, individuals who need to utilize [the buses]. They can’t be in certain sections in town and get to and from them successfully by utilizing RTS right now.”

Simmons agreed that “we need to do a better job,” saying she hears similar complaints, but she said the city has to think beyond RTS buses and look at multiple modes of transportation. She said shuttle routes and even scooters should be considered as ways to improve transportation options in Gainesville.

“We can’t just depend on RTS,” Simmons said.

Addressing income disparity through jobs

The moderator asked how the candidates would bring jobs to the city to address income disparity. Simmons talked about the need for “diverse” jobs that could last through a downturn and not rely on the same type of industry—factors that have become more important in the during the pandemic, she said.

“We need not only resilient jobs, but jobs that pay a living wage,” Simmons said. She discussed the city’s efforts to help develop incentive packages that attract those businesses to Gainesville.

Duncan-Walker said improving people’s job skills was the best way to get them into new jobs and better paying positions. She said that the city should look at ways to restart a vocational education effort while recruiting new businesses to the area.

“If we take a very intentional stance at bringing back and reinvigorating vocational education, we will begin to be able to impact that group of people so they will be prepared for the jobs once we are able to create them and bring them here,” Duncan-Walker said.

Adding “accessory” units to expand affordable housing

The real estate association also asked the candidates about a city ordinance expanding the ability of property owners to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—like basement and garage apartments or free-standing in-law suites.

Both candidates said the ADUs could help the city meet the need for affordable housing. Simmons discussed a pilot project to build homes in East Gainesville that included building ADUs on the backs of those homes.

“I am hopeful the ADU ordinance will really do what the true intentions of the commission has been: to look for affordable ways to provide housing,” Simmons said. “[The true purpose the ordinance] is to help and assist with housing for low-income individuals and citizens.”

Duncan-Walker said she sees ADUs as a positive step but not enough.

“ADUs favor those whose budgets and property are large enough [to build them],” Duncan-Walker said. “While I’m in favor of them, I look forward to a lot more work that the city needs to do to address this massive affordable housing issue.”

In their closing statements, both candidates remained positive about the future of District I.

Simmons said, “District I is moving in the right direction,” even when the progress within the district has been incremental.

She described herself as a “leader that listened and a leader that has worked hard for District I.”

If elected, Duncan-Walker said she would value communication and collaboration with members of the community and promised she would be “showing up all year long, not just when I am trying to get their vote.”

Duncan-Walker called Gainesville “a wonderful place” but said, “I look forward to being a part of process that will make Gainesville fair and equitable for us all.”

Early in-person voting starts on Friday and runs through March 13. Locations include:

  • Supervisor of Elections Office, 515 N. Main St., Suite 100.
  • J. Wayne Reitz Union on the UF campus, 655 Reitz Union Drive
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center, 1028 NE 14th St.
  • Millhopper Branch Library, 3145 NW 43rd St.

Election Day is March 16, with polling places open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Mail-in ballots, which voters can request through Saturday, are due March 16—either by mail, the early voting locations, or the secure drop box outside the Supervisor of Elections Office.

In addition to the District I race, the municipal election will feature incumbent Gail Johnson facing Gabriel Hillel in a race for an at-large seat.

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