Proposed city budget keeps same tax rate, raises GRU transfer


Gainesville City Manager Russ Blackburn discusses his recommended budget for the city of Gainesville for the 2014 fiscal year at City Hall on Wednesday.

Aundre Larrow/The Gainesville Su
Published: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.

Gainesville City Manager Russ Blackburn's proposed budget would maintain the current property tax rate and increase the size of the city's general fund by about $2.3 million over the current fiscal year.

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Gainesville City Manager Russ Blackburn discusses his recommended budget for the city of Gainesville for the 2014 fiscal year at City Hall on Wednesday.

Aundre Larrow/The Gainesville Su

The single largest piece of the approximately $107.4 million budget is the $38.1 million transfer of revenues from Gainesville Regional Utilities.

That's an increase from this year's transfer of approximately $36.67 million at a time when utility revenues have declined and the biomass plant is set to increase electric rates starting Oct. 1.

The upcoming fiscal year is the last in a four-year span in which commissioners decided to set the GRU transfer amount in advance, although they have the latitude to change the size of the transfer during summer budget hearings.

Discussing his budget proposal at a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Blackburn said the GRU transfer is a "very significant and critical part" of the city general budget but also a growing concern of GRU staff in a time of declining sales.

Blackburn noted that general government and GRU budget staff are in talks on a new formula for setting the transfer that could lead to a reduction in its size in the 2015 fiscal year.

The budget proposal maintains the current property tax rate, which is just less than 4.5 mills, or almost $4.50 for every $1,000 of taxable property value. With property tax values inching down and nearly 60 percent of the property in the city off the tax rolls, the general fund is projected to have property tax revenues of $22.3 million.

That's down just more than $100,000 from the budgeted revenues for this year and well below the amount of the GRU transfer to the general fund.

Keeping with a City Commission vote from last summer's budget cycle, the proposed budget includes a 2 percent salary increase for employees. For employees in a union, those salary increases, while budgeted, still have to be negotiated through the collective bargaining process.

Pension costs are also projected to rise by $600,000. That's an area where city administration is trying to slow the rate of rising expenses through a recent series of agreements with the employee unions on benefit changes.

Blackburn's budget proposed several additions. Each of them had a cost of less than $100,000.

Some of them include:

-- Convert a part-time small and minority business program coordinator position in the Equal Opportunity Department to full time at a cost of $32,511.

-- Adding two more school resource officers to elementary schools at a local cost of $64,000. The city also is seeking a $100,000 federal grant to go toward the positions for the first few years.

-- About $73,600 to keep three temporary, grant-funded intervention specialist positions at the Reichert House for at-risk youth employed on a full-time basis. Outside grant funding for the positions has been reduced, but $90,000 is still available to augment the city's spending.

-- Mental health screening training for half of Gainesville police officers at a cost of $13,000. The other half of sworn personnel would receive the training in the next fiscal year.

-- Maintaining the vacant C.R. Layton Army Reserve Center property, which the city will take over from the federal government, at a cost of $48,000.

As for new charges on the public, staff's budget proposal includes a 10 percent surcharge on the fees for programs offered by the Department of Parks Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

That surcharge was recommended in the department's long-term master plan and could generate an expected $63,300. Under Blackburn's plan, about $39,300 of that would go toward a development and partnership coordinator who would work to find private sector sponsorships for the department.

Staff's budget proposal would leave the City Commission with roughly $202,500 in unallocated money to put toward spending they might want to add to the budget.

Mayor Ed Braddy said he was "generally pleased" with Blackburn's budget proposal, primarily because it would not increase property tax rates. He said he would like the projected $202,500 surplus to go toward improving bus service on eastside routes.

While there is a projected $202,500 surplus, the list of programs and spending commissioners are expected to consider adding to the budget tops $2 million in costs.

With the first budget workshop scheduled for July 16, the addition of programs would require cutting elsewhere or increasing the property tax rates.

One significant addition that commissioners might mull is $1 million for the first year of a five-year, $5 million plan to increase pedestrian and bicycle safety through infrastructure improvements that include traffic signals at midblock crosswalks near busy bus stops.

Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said that is one addition he would like to see to the budget.

Commissioner Susan Bottcher said, with the economy still in recovery, she would prefer to wait and potentially include the pedestrian and bicycle safety enhancements in the city's project list for a potential 2014 transportation sales tax.

There's also a $131,000 one-time capital cost and a projected $12,000 in annual operating costs, primarily for community outreach and marketing, to start up a bike-share program that would place 50 bikes at 10 stations around the city.

Also included in the budget is funding to buy land for and begin operation of a one-stop homeless shelter and assistance center, which is now slated for a shuttered prison property off Northeast 39th Avenue.

That's not a budget addition because the center, which ran into lawsuits and wetland permitting issues at a site near Northwest 53rd Avenue, has been in the budget for years.

While not included in Blackburn's recommended budget, the City Commission also is likely to consider as much as $523,000 to improve bus service on several eastside routes.

There is also the possibility of $300,000 for a disparity study to look at the city's record of hiring and promoting minorities and contracting with minority-owned companies.

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