City Commission appears to favor slight hike in tax rate


Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 10:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 10:42 p.m.

With electric rates slated to rise from the biomass plant, an increase in Gainesville’s property tax rates may also be on the table.

Toward the end of a lengthy budget meeting Tuesday, five of the seven city commissioners indicated support for an approximately 1.8 percent increase in the property tax rate.

In balloting, they supported the “roll backed” rate, which would bring in the same amount of property tax revenue next budget year as the city received this year. Historically, that would mean a reduction in the property tax rate.

But with taxable property values down in the wake of the recession, albeit barely this year, it would require a tax rate increase from just under $4.50 for every $1,000 of taxable property value to a little less than $4.58.

On Thursday, the City Commission will meet again to formally vote on the tentative budget and preliminary property tax rates for next fiscal year. The final hearings will come in September.

Staff’s proposed $107.2 million general fund budget held the line on the property tax rate but did not include several spending items that individual commissioners had already indicated they sought to add.

Some $2 million in spending additions are under consideration. The balloting that ended Tuesday’s meeting was not a formal vote on spending increases but was intended to give staff an idea of where the commission majority would head on Thursday.

In that balloting, Susan Bottcher and Todd Chase opposed the property tax rate increase to the “rolled back” rate.

Some of the potential additions to the original budget proposal include:

-- $1.025 million to fund the first year of a five-year, $5 million pedestrian and cyclist safety plan. Major pieces of it would be traffic signals at mid-block crosswalks and more funding for sidewalk construction.

Thomas Hawkins, Lauren Poe and Randy Wells favored the addition. Bottcher, Mayor Ed Braddy, Chase and Yvonne Hinson-Rawls opposed it. Bottcher said she’d like to see it included as a priority project in a potential 2014 transportation sales tax referendum.

-- Some $600,000 in bus service enhancements. All seven commissioners supported $122,178 for improvements on “priority” east Gainesville routes. All commissioners except Chase supported $45,000 to restore service on Route 27 serving Santa Fe College. Bottcher, Hawkins and Poe supported all the proposed spending for bus service improvements.

-- $300,000 for a consultant to conduct a disparity study looking at the city’s record of hiring women and minorities and contracting with firms owned by women and minorities. Hawkins, Hinson-Rawls, Poe and Wells were in support. Bottcher, Braddy and Chase were in opposition.

-- $143,000 to start a bike share program. Hawkins, Poe and Wells favored it. Bottcher, Braddy, Chase and Hinson-Rawls opposed.

The proposed budget includes 2 percent raises for employees. In balloting, Bottcher, Chase and Wells supported eliminating those raises as a move to trim almost $700,000 from the general fund.

The proposed budget includes scheduled 5 percent increases in 10 city fees. They include those for stormwater, solid waste building permits, false fire alarms, land development code applications and programs offered by the Department of Parks Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

The costs for parks and cultural affairs programs, except youth and children’s programs, would actually increase more substantially — by 15 percent.

That’s because of a proposed 10 percent “surcharge” intended to raise $63,300, with more than half of that going toward a development and partnership coordinator to find private sector sponsorships for the department. That’s one piece of the city’s 20-year parks master plan.

Braddy and Chase opposed that surcharge.

There was significant debate over the disparity study, including disagreement between City Attorney Nicolle Shalley and Equal Opportunity Director Cecil Howard whether the city could face litigation over any stronger policies for minority hiring and contracting that may come as a result of it.

Hinson-Rawls, who has pushed for the study, said those policies may be needed.

“I’m 65 years old,” she said. “I came through the civil rights era. We’re back in a place where we might not need race-neutral activities. We might need race-conscious activities ... I’m trying to use politically correct terms.”

Braddy said the projected cost was a concern that led to his opposition. He also questioned if Hinson-Rawls had reached a conclusion without any study.

With the biomass plant slated to push up electric rates, the single largest piece of the city’s general fund budget — the transfer of revenues from Gainesville Regional Utilities — is still slated to rise by about $1.4 million to $38.1 million.

Chase and Wells each said an effort to reduce the size of the transfer when GRU rates are rising was a main reason they opposed employee raises next budget year.

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