A question of fairness

Published: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 11:13 p.m.
Gainesville city commissioners are toying with some ideas for getting around an agreement the city made 15 years ago to pay for streetlight and fire-hydrant operation in the unincorporated area served by Gainesville Regional Utilities.
As a matter of history, that agreement followed several years of city-county haggling over just who should pay for streetlights and fire hydrants. Indeed, the dispute would quite likely have ended up in court - and perhaps should have - if the city hadn't agreed to take on that fiscal responsibility. (At the time, both city and county commissioners were hoping that resolution of the bitter, long-running dispute would help convince voters to approve a sales-tax initiative, but voters rejected it anyway.) These days, the city pays about $1 million a year for lights and hydrants in the unincorporated area, and $2 million annually for those inside Gainesville. The notion of providing a "free" service outside city limits has long rankled some commissioners, especially when annexation bids are rejected by suburban residents.
So the idea has been proposed to raise utility rates by a sufficient amount to cover streetlight and fire-hydrant operations. At the same time, commissioners could lower property city tax rates by an equivalent amount, thereby making sure that only unincorporated GRU customers would bear the additional financial burden.
That, so the logic goes, would ensure no more "free rides" for non-Gainesville residents.
As a matter of strategy, such a policy might even help the city in its future annexation attempts, since Gainesville officials could hold out the prospect of lower property rates to offset higher utility costs. This assumes, of course, that jacking up utility bills won't make noncity residents bitter towards Gainesville and even less likely to want to join.
In any case, we would argue against the whole idea, as a matter of fairness.
Because in truth, it is unincorporated GRU customers, not city residents, who are the the big losers in the subsidy game.
Every time a noncity resident pays a GRU electric bill, part of that payment goes to support the Gainesville Police Department, city parks and recreation, Gainesville fire and rescue and other vital city services.
GRU "profits" add millions of dollars a year to the city's budget, and a lot of that money comes from outside city limits.
In that context, the city's agreement to pay for streetlights and fire hydrants in the unincorporated area is a subsidy only in the technical sense.
Another way to look at it is that the operation and maintenance of streetlights and fire hydrants is one of the few direct benefits noncity residents get back from the city government surcharge they pay every month on their GRU bills.
As a matter of fairness, this isn't a battle worth waging again - not 15 years after striking the agreement that helped put an end to an era of bitter city-county relations.
City commissioners recently talked about the notion of doing a better job of "marketing" Gainesville in order to convince county residents to vote for annexation. Coercion isn't our idea of smart marketing.

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