On Thursday, the Gainesville City Commission finalized a change in formulas that will result in an approximate 91% increase for commissioner and mayor salaries.
The commission also approved financial incentives for Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) to reign in late customer bills, bought land near Loblolly Woods and amended its Title XI Fair Chance Hiring code.
With Commissioner Reina Saco absent for the meeting, the commissioners voted 4-2 on the salary changes, with Mayor-elect Harvey Ward and Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker in dissent.
The city will now use the same state formula that county commissioners use. The formula takes the population and a series of multipliers to reach the salaries. The mayoral position will also earn 25% more than the commissioner, like it does currently.
Because the city has a lower population than Alachua County, city commissioners will make less than their county counterparts. Salaries will fall around $71,000 for commissioners and $88,000 for the mayor. The change will start on Oct. 1, 2023, with the new fiscal year.
Alachua County commissioners in 2021-2022 earned $82,930.
The commissioners passed the ordinance without comment on Thursday but explained their reasonings during the first reading.
During commissioner comment, Cynthia Chestnut brought up late GRU bills and asked interim General Manager Tony Cunningham how the utility is addressing the issue.
Cunningham explained how GRU faced two bad options over the summer because of labor shortages: check every meter for every customer bill but have 36-, 37- or 38-day cycles or estimate a portion of customer bills each month and then correct any discrepancies the following month.
GRU decided to estimate some bills but keep the normal month lengths, but that system forces more manual input and has led to the backup. As of Dec. 7, just over 5,000 November utility bills had not been sent to customers.
“We are trying to do absolutely everything we can,” Cunningham said at Thursday’s meeting. “This is not acceptable, in my mind, in terms of how to operate as an organization, and we are trying to get it back on track.”
Cunningham said long-term solutions are underway, including a new billing system in April to replace the utility’s 2007 technology along with Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) that automatically reads meters and sends the data to GRU and the customer.
While GRU has already started the AMI rollout, the process won’t finish for more than a year. And Cunningham said as the rollout proceeds, more meter readers will look for new jobs.
In the short term, Cunningham said GRU has begun reallocating employees with meter reading and billing experience to work on the backlog. He also said GRU hasn’t estimated any bills since Dec. 5.
Adrian Hayes-Santos and Chestnut moved and seconded a motion to give Cunningham financial authority to adjust payments for meter readers in order to retain those employees. The motion also asks for an update at the city’s Jan. 5 meeting.
“This issue is only going to get worse and worse as we get closer and closer to rolling out AMI,” Hayes-Santos said.
The exact structure, whether an increase in salary or longevity bonus, remains up to GRU, and Cunningham said the utility will work around contracts to incentivize the employees.
He said GRU is also considering hiring a contractor to provide meter readings in the short term. He said a proposal could return at the beginning of 2023.
According to Kinn’zon Hutchinson, GRU’s chief customer officer, the utility needs around 22-24 meter readers.
The commission also passed a final change to its Title XI code concerning background checks during hiring interviews.
The code change delays background checks until after an interview or employment offer is made. According to backup documents, delaying background checks allows businesses to consider applicants on an individual basis instead of discarding applications without an interview.
The commission also approved the purchase of land off Hawthorne Road to create an RTS transfer station next to UF Health’s Eastside Urgent Care Clinic that continues moving forward. The city approved land use and zoning changes for the property earlier this year.
Alachua County, UF Health and the city of Gainesville have partnered for the project. Each government has given $2.25 million to help build clinic.
Thursday’s item gives the RTS ownership over a portion of the site for $10. The city will be responsible for roadway changes and improvements.
In another land purchase Thursday, the city bought a section of land next to Loblolly Woods for $216,000. The city’s agenda said that land will serve as a buffer between the nature trails and adjacent development.