Lauren Poe is running for mayor in the upcoming city election and presidential preference primary on March 15.
A Gainesville city commissioner from 2008 to 2011 and again from 2012 to 2015, Poe served as mayor pro-tempore in 2012.
He recently sat down with WUFT to discuss some of the issues affecting Gainesville, and here’s what he had to say:
For years, elected officials have promised to take steps to improve the economic situation in east Gainesville. What can you promise that won’t just be more of the rhetoric of years past?
One thing that we need to concentrate on in Gainesville is where we have comparative advantage — and that’s with the talent coming out of the University of Florida. And for too long, we’ve allowed a lot of that talent to escape Gainesville and move to other places and start new businesses elsewhere.
If we can capture those and give them a place where they want to work and stay and start their businesses, that’s going to have a tremendous multiplier effect for our entire city. The great thing about that is the types of businesses that are being created [to] create jobs at all different levels of the spectrum. So they have entry-level jobs … where you don’t need any sort of specialized degree, or even advanced education, to do, all the way up to researchers and Ph.D.-type level jobs.
What we’re working towards from my perspective is creating an economy that isn’t just based on health care and higher education — which is what Gainesville kind of always focused on — but a third component of tech and biotech, and sort of new light-manufacturing opportunities that we really have the unique talent and resources to capture here. Now another part of that is making Gainesville a great place to live. For people to want to stay here and start their businesses here and work here, it has to be a phenomenal city. And so that’s our job as elected officials: to make the quality of life in Gainesville such that people choose to be here other than everywhere else.
Other than Butler Plaza, the Standard and the downtown hotel construction projects, what other major developments do you have in mind to enhance the local economy, attract outside businesses, raise the city’s profile and facilitate local job growth?
I think one thing I worked on very hard while I was on the city commission — and those that came before me, as well — is trying to create development that wasn’t already here in Gainesville. Gainesville has a huge amount of student housing. They have a huge amount of single-family neighborhoods and housing.
But what we don’t have … is density and places where you can live, work and play all in one spot. And so that’s the kind of development that I think that we need to focus most on. That’s where we have a deficit. That’s where we see the demand — if we look at all the emerging trends in real estate that our younger professionals want: urban living and access to things like transit.
They don’t necessarily want to have to own a car … they want to be able to walk out their door and get to their job. They want to be able to leave their job and have entertainment and other things to. … So that’s what I believe Gainesville should be focusing on, and I think we have a great opportunity to see that happen in the next several years.
The Florida Municipal Electric Association numbers for December 2015 residential bill comparisons show Gainesville electric rates higher than any other city in the group. The city commission, regarding GREC and the biomass plant, have talked about audits, outages allowing other power to be used, the NAVIGANT study and even buying the plant. All that notwithstanding, what are you going to do to help reduce these highest-in-the-state electric rates for customers of Gainesville Regional Utilities?
Well, the thing we need to focus on is lowering people’s bills. And the immediate way we can lower people’s bills is by going into their homes and finding ways for them to be more efficient. And it doesn’t take a lot of money. I work with an organization called the Community Weatherization Coalition, and they go in and do a home audit and find cost-effective ways to greatly reduce people’s energy use.
That’s an immediate way that we can help people. We can target especially those that are low income but have high usage. I think that will be a great benefit to folks. As far as the rates go, you have to think longer term, and there’s a lot of options out there that we need to explore. One is perhaps joining in a municipal power pool with some of our fellow municipally owned utilities in the area; another is looking at purchasing the GREC plant and running and operating it ourselves — that would give us some economic benefit.
But those are complex and long-term solutions that need to be discussed in a very serious manner by members of the commission and the general public. … I think we need to look at the short-term achievable goals, which is lowering people’s bills and then the longer-term goal.
How do you think the people of Gainesville will feel when they find out you were one of the commissioners involved in the 2009 contract with GREC?
I think they already know that, and I have no problem sharing that with folks. But that process started in 2003, and I took office in 2008. And so really my predecessor, Ed Braddy, that was the last motion he made … for the utility to negotiate and execute that contract, and in that, he laid out the parameters for what the contract would look like. …
This came out in the NAVIGANT report that analyzed that process, and the NAVIGANT report said that one of the most glaring errors was that the motion did not include a draft purchase-power agreement. …
It didn’t give our city staff really any parameters with which to negotiate that contract, and we see the results. So there were some mistakes made in the front end.
The contract is what we have in place now, and as I said, you know, I think that the way that we improve the community is by looking to the future and what we can do from this point on, not by dwelling on decisions that were made in the past.
Why do city commissioners and the mayor deserve a pension from taxpayers?
Well, I don’t take a pension. I didn’t take one while I was a city commissioner. … I’m a public servant, I’m a teacher, and I’m already part of the Florida Retirement System. But we work very long hours on behalf of the citizens of Gainesville, and it’s a very short-term job. Most people get a maximum of six years, and, you know, it’s typically a 40-to-60-hour-a-week job. It’s considered a part-time job on top of our other jobs that we already have, as well as much, much time away from our families. …
I think if you want people to take the job seriously — if you want quality people to run for office — you need to make the compensation such that it makes it worthwhile. Otherwise, you’re only going to get wealthy individuals that are running for office.
What are your plans and what is your vision for the future of Grace Marketplace and Dignity Village?
It’s been an exciting year for Grace, you know, they started from nothing. …
The center is very much stabilized now, and what we need to do as a city is partner with our county and all the private service providers that are out there to make sure that they stay successful. We need to keep an adequate funding level out there. … We need to make sure they [Grace] know that they need to engage in private fundraising to try to fill the gaps. And we need to empower the residents out there. Nobody chooses to be homeless. …
They’re real people, [and] they need real help. Our job is to empower them, allow them to establish a sense of dignity. … That allows us to very specifically align the resources and the services that they need with that individual person because every person has a story and a different set of needs. And if they’re there, then it’s much more likely that we’re going to be able to hook them up with those services that they need.
How do you plan to minimize the financial burden of the Empowerment Center on the people of Gainesville at the same time it says it needs more money for expanding services, infrastructure and security?
Well, I don’t know if financial burden is the right word. What we’re doing is we’re investing in our citizens. And it’s no different than if we invest in our children through education or reinvest in our police department to keep us safe. This is one thing that the city is doing to help folks that are in need, and that, to me, is not a burden. It’s something that we have a shared responsibility for. I think most Gainesville residents are very proud of the fact that they do that.
We see the evidence of it with the enormous amount of volunteers that go out there, many of whom volunteer on a weekly basis. It’s become part of their lives. And, you know, the relative amount of money we’re spending compared to the good that we’re doing is minuscule. And then there’s the other argument that you could either spend it now, or you could spend it through the jail and prison system.
All those things cost more in the back end, so the more we invest in the front end, the more you’re ultimately going to save taxpayer’s money.
How would you raise more money for the Empowerment Center without using taxpayers’ money?
The board of directors for Grace has undertaken a capital campaign and a fundraising campaign, and it takes time to develop.
It’s difficult, but you have to build up your donor base. And there’s a lot of creative ways to do that. But Grace has a great story to tell, and what they need to do is tell that story to as many people as they can get to listen. And what’s going to eventually happen is that they’re going to have recurring donors.
They’ll get there, they’ll host fundraisers, they’ll get those recurring payments, they’ll get people to, you know, deed their property when they pass on — the things that other nonprofits do. We have a very strong nonprofit network in this community that really looks out for each other and helps each other. They don’t view themselves as competing with one another. So they’re going to be fine. It just takes a little bit of time to build up that network.
There has been much discussion surrounding the renovation and opening of Bo Diddley Plaza. How are you going to ensure to the taxpayers that their new community center will not be overrun by the homeless who have previously been known to loiter and linger around the park and dissuade those who paid for it from enjoying their new plaza?
We need to be clear that many of the people that were hanging out at the downtown plaza were not homeless. They might have been indigent, but they were not homeless. They just chose to hangout there. And it’s a public space. But one of the reasons that we saw the congregation there is there was not another great place for them to be, Grace was not open. …
So now that we have Grace and you have a safe place, you have a place where not only they can get meals and basic services, but they can enjoy the fellowship of one another. They’re in a warm environment. That is a much better alternative. You know, Bo Diddley doesn’t have showers and hot meals and people wanting to reach out and help you. And so, you know, it’s … important that we recognize that it is a public space. There are going to be people there. We should view that as an opportunity to approach them and find out what their needs are.
I think that the new plaza is going to be wonderful. It’s going to be such a needed makeover, and I think what we’re going to see is many different people of all ages using that on a regular basis because it’s just going to be a great public space.
What will you do to cut taxes in Gainesville?
Our taxes are already quite low, and, you know, the other thing about that is that property taxes don’t generate a lot of revenue in the city of Gainesville.
We — and I say going back generations — have not primarily relied on property taxes to fund city services because you just get so little out of them. And so I have no plans to lower property taxes, nor do I have any plans to raise property taxes. They have been stable for a very long period of time.
We have to remember that those go to fund essential city services. You know, half of our city budget is police and fire. So when you start talking about cutting property taxes, you have to really think: Well, what services are you going to be cutting along with that? Are you going to cut police and fire? Are you going to cut our parks and recreation system, which really needs more programming and more investment? Are you going to cut public works and road-repair dollars? Those are not things that I’m willing to cut. I think that makes us a worse city; I think that reduces our quality of life. …
I’m not one to fall into this sort of mindset that we should always be reducing taxes at all costs.
How do you make Gainesville more business friendly considering the already high utility costs and what some business people espouse as having a reputation of not being business friendly?
I think it’s important for businesses to be able to start and be successful and be competitive, and I mean, they’re the engine that runs our economy. And so we’re always looking for ways to improve, and one of my major initiatives in my last term on the commission is what we call open government, or government 2.0. That was really a process that’s still ongoing — of automating a lot of our city services, putting all of our public information out there in an easily accessible format — that has actually created huge business opportunities.
I certainly started that process. I helped appoint people to the Blue Ribbon [Advisory Committee of Economic Competitiveness] commission that was going to look at us at being more citizen centered and more business friendly. And those are wonderful steps.
I think whenever we get the community together to talk about what our strengths are — and also where our opportunities lay — that’s an excellent thing. … I think it’s a process of listening to those things, helping ease, you know, the process of either starting a business or expanding your business. And really, the folks that have the most trouble is your small entrepreneurs, your one-person businesses. …
The larger folks, they usually have the training and background to be able to navigate the process. So what we should really do is focus on those smaller startups that maybe don’t have all those skill sets and help them through the process, and make sure that we start from a position of, “Yes, and how can we get there?” instead of, “No, and here’s why.”
How big an issue is crime in this city, and what do you plan to do to fight crime and improve policing?
Fortunately, we have a phenomenal police chief [Tony Jones], and under his tenure, we’ve seen serious crime rates drop every year. … So that’s good news, but what we do see are sort of hot spots, or pockets of crime, and we need to have a 21st-century police force. It’s about community-oriented policing. It’s about officers getting to know the people they serve, getting to know you, know their neighbors and their residents in the areas, understanding what the needs of each community are. …
That is where we have not only a safe city but a city that respects one another and sort of works to grow a greater good. And we’re very fortunate we have the right guy at the helm that understands that. He has a particular affinity for juvenile justice; he’s a national leader in that subject. And that’s a major part of my platform: how the city does more for children and youth. And part of that is reaching out to them, making sure they’re not getting in trouble in the first place, making sure they’re not sort of getting in that revolving door of the criminal justice system.
If we can keep them [juveniles], you know, out of that system up until the age of 18 or 20, then the chances of them getting in trouble for the rest of their life are very slim. And so, you know, those I think are the areas that we really need to focus on in Gainesville right now, with a keen eye and understanding that some people are just simply criminals and they need to be caught and locked up because they’re a danger to society. Fortunately, we’re seeing less of that than we have in a long time.
At least one city commissioner has suggested the police chief be put under the direct supervision of the mayor instead of the city manager. What do you think about that idea?
Well, if there’s one position in city government you don’t want politicized, that’s police chief. A police chief needs to do his or her job in the manner that they see most effective, and so I would really worry about a police chief that was a charter officer because then that person would be directed by the city commission. That would be subject to political motivations and political whims and political pressure.
As it is, the police chief is answerable to the city manager, so it’s a much less politicized environment. And the police chief can really feel like they can make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of public safety and not what four commissioners on the commission at any one given point in time think that he or she should be doing.
What is your position regarding underage patrons being allowed into drinking establishments and the local business people say they rely upon underage patrons for “three quarters of his business”?
When I was on the commission, we worked on this for a long time, and we were very hard on it. We hope to not have to go there because we want our young people to have a good time and hang out with their peers responsibly — and most do that. And most establishment owners do that, as well. The incidences that we have with underage drinking and alcohol establishments and bars is really concentrated with just a few establishments, so what have we been trying to do is come up with a regulatory enforcement mechanism that will hold those responsible who are encouraging this type of behavior.
Listen, I went to the University of Florida. … It was common knowledge when I was in college which bars you could go to and get served, or that they would turn their back and let underage people drink. And that’s no different today. And so what we need to do is certainly reward the bars that are operating responsibly, that are acting as good-faith partners with the city, but the ones that aren’t, they are putting people in danger. …
That’s just being an irresponsible business owner, and so the city commission has a responsibility to make sure that those establishments are not allowed to do that. And what I have found is most establishments are more than wiling to work with us on a common-sense solution to that problem.