In State of City address, Lowe touts savings, progress
Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 4:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 10:12 p.m.
At the start of his first State of the City address Tuesday, Mayor Craig Lowe unveiled the winning entry of the city's photography contest, a shot showing a dark-purple Gainesville sky with flashes of lightning crashing down.
The image was something of a metaphor for the storm Lowe said the city weathered in 2010.
In a 22-minute speech at the Hippodrome State Theatre, Lowe looked back at a year of overcoming obstacles — namely an $8.3 million budget deficit and the worldwide attention a small Gainesville church drew for its plan to hold a Quran burning — and ahead to embracing a so-called innovation economy and making more investments in mass transit.
“As mayor, one of my key responsibilities is to keep Gainesville moving forward,” he said.
Municipalities across the country have struggled in this recession, Lowe said, and Gainesville is no exception.
Heading into this budget cycle, $10 million and several positions had already been cut.
“It's safe to say that the low-hanging fruit had been harvested. We were left with few choices for balancing the budget, and none of them were easy,” he said. “But we didn't duck the tough choices, and we didn't turn away from the values that brought our city ongoing recognition as one of the top places to live, work and play.”
One of those choices was the fire service assessment.
The fee, which was passed by the City Commission with a 5-2 vote in July and is expected to raise about $5 million to fund the fire department, wasn't mentioned during the speech, but he said in a news conference later that he believes it will stay in place next year “until and unless there is an alternate funding mechanism to fund the programs that are so crucial for our city — in this case, fire protection.”
Despite the budget constraints, the city has progressed, he said.
He touted the city's relatively low unemployment rate — at 8.3 percent in December, the lowest of any metro area in the state — and recent rankings placing Gainesville among the best college towns and smartest cities in the country. But, he said, there is room to grow.
This year, he predicted, concrete plans would begin to take shape for bringing bus rapid transit to the Regional Transit System.
He also said the University of Florida's Innovation Square, being built on the site of the former Shands at Alachua General Hospital, would help cement the city as an “international hub of high-tech development.”
But to move forward, some parts of the city's past need to be corrected.
Lowe vowed to work with federal lawmakers and state agencies to “ensure that progress is made in cleaning” the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site and said he met with the Environmental Protection Agency's deputy administrator, Bob Perciasepe, last week about the cleanup process.
In the news conference, Lowe said Perciasepe told him the national EPA office would oversee the Atlanta-based regional office during the cleanup.
During the mayor's speech, a group of about 50 people assembled outside the Hippodrome to protest the city's code limiting soup kitchens to serving 130 meals in a day.
The group also served food to about 70 homeless and hungry people who had been turned away after the St. Francis House reached the limit, said Joe Cenker, a member of the Coalition to End the Meal Limit Now.
When asked about the meal limit at the news conference, Lowe said there were other institutions that could feed the homeless.
During the speech, he touted the city and county's one-stop center “to serve our homeless population” and the cold-night shelter program.
But for Cenker and other members of the coalition, that isn't good enough.
Cenker said members have been talking with the mayor's office and commissioners, but, he said, “unfortunately they keep giving what seems to us to be smokescreens” about the limit.
Contact Chad Smith at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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