Attorney Jim Konish is running for the District 4 city commissioner seat in the March 15 city election.
Konish, 61, said he is looking to serve for only one term if he is successfully elected because he is close to retirement. Among is hopes for Gainesville are privatizing Grace Marketplace and Dignity Village, making the city less of a haven for the homeless and better equipping firefighters to deal with the increasing amount of high buildings.
He sat down with WUFT to discuss these and other 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?
I want to say that you’re in a very affluent area, then as you go east, it sort of tapers off. Cross Seventh Street, a little different; cross Ninth Street, a little different; cross Waldo Road, a little different. So east Gainesville is not a monolithic thing. … There are pockets of blight everywhere, and it’s not just black people in those pockets of blight.
Part of the problem with the conversation is it’s based on sort of faulty premises, but I think it’s fair to say this that, for historical reasons, east Gainesville does not have natural gas lines.
One of the very important things to realize about east Gainesville is that there is no natural gas, and what that means is our owner rates and extremely high electric rates impact east Gainesville differently from areas in town that have natural gas. And statistically, if you’re in east Gainesville … you have no natural gas. Therefore, you’re going to have electric for everything, and you’re going to, on average, going to consume 25 percent more electricity. …
One of the biggest things that we could do for east Gainesville is to try in some ways to see if we can’t rectify that, but it’s not going to be easy. … Another thing: Infrastructure has been neglected on the east side, and generally speaking, the streets are old, the utility infrastructure is old. And that is a negative factor, and that needs to be addressed.
The one thing I could promise you is I would take a hard look at Grace Marketplace and Dignity Village and revamp it, curtail it and privatize it because it is mushrooming into, I think, a nuisance that is going to really be bad for all of east Gainesville. … No community — east, west, north, south — is going to thrive when you have single woman with three to six children. That’s a community issue. …
We have to address the problems at the roots, and that is just one thing I see being a landlord: woman pulling up with a lot of children and no man in the house. That is a very problematic phenomenon for any community.
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?
It’s not the role of city government to determine what should be developed and where. It’s up to private business to come up with projects that make sense for them financially, and it’s the role of city government to create a level playing field.
All too often, I see former elected officials on the payroll of the developer asking for subsidies for projects that should be able to support themselves, and this creates an unfair situation where certain developers with certain influence peddlers on their payroll have an advantage over another developer that doesn’t have those connections.
So the job of the City Commission is to create a level playing field, where you don’t have to have a former city or county commissioner on your payroll or a former city employee on your payroll to steer through the regulatory mechanism. … The role of city government is to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place for the development we approve, not to subsidize development, which overwhelms our infrastructure and destroys the neighborhoods nearby.
The role of the city government is to create a level playing field but ensure that if someone wants to build something that we have the infrastructure to serve it, and they pay their fair share for the impacts that has — not to have the rate payer and GRU taxpayer subsidize, people that are doing very profitable projects, that sometimes don’t even fit within the location that they’ve chosen. …
But the city government does not decide, it does not plan for a development and shouldn’t be planning for developments. They should allow people to apply, and it should be reviewed. And everyone should get a fair shake for whatever proposals they bring forward.
The Florida Municipal Electric Association numbers for December 2015 on 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?
I’m the only one running that has a concrete plan to deal with this. When you talk about GRU [and] the way they charge people, you have to know the terminology first. We get a bill, and the first thing you have to understand is that GRU is a multi-utility. So on the bill, you’re going to have one bill for everything you have. …
First, I want to talk about the electric bill, the electric component of the bill, and this is exclusive to inside the city. We’re a third above the average. The rates are a very small part of the bill, and if you compare, our rates are low, our bills are high. Why is that? Very simple. On the bill, you’ll see a fuel-adjustment charge, but that is misleading.
It is a fuel-and-purchase-power-adjustment charge. So currently on the biomass plant, we pay $6 million a month, and we’re not taking any power because if we did, it would be $9 million a month. And the variable charge for the biomass power is higher than the cost of producing the power ourselves or buying it elsewhere.
The majority of the major part of the bill is the biomass plant. So our bills are high because of the biomass plant; our rates are low. The rates pay for our existing facilities. The reason it’s done this way is because the utility charge, which is an important part of the city’s finances, only applies to the base rate. One part is taxed, and the other is not taxed. So when you talk about GRU, you don’t talk about the rates. We have charges, we have rates, we have cost recovery, we have taxes, we have surcharges and then we have bundling. …
For GRU customers within the city, you must take a garbage cart and pay storm water as a condition of getting electric service. Then there’s the taxes. We have a very aggressive tax scheme the way they calculate the utility tax. I think it’s illegal. I went to court and challenged it. The judge didn’t agree, and we didn’t decide to spend the money to take it any further.
I absolutely have a plan. My plan is very simple. Let’s do what the county does: Let’s put the garbage on the tax bill. My plan is to put the garbage and the storm water on the tax bill to be paid by the property owner, and it’ll have to be paid whether or not your electricity gets turned off. They’ll be 100 percent collection. Another thing people don’t know is, GRU charges the city $600,000 a year to claw the storm water and garbage fees out of the rate payer.
Why do city commissioners and the mayor deserve a pension from taxpayers?
I didn’t even know they got a pension. To be honest with you, I did not know that. I’m not running for $16-an-hour job. I’m pretty well off financially. I never really paid any attention to what the financial remediation would be for me. But to answer your question, I think that if you really do your job — and I’m not saying that everybody does — and you put in the time to listen to your constituents, listen to your staff, do your homework, come to the meetings prepared. The meetings are lengthy. There are a lot of different meetings and a lot of different committees.
I don’t really think the salary of $33,000 for a commissioner and $40,000 for a mayor is really very good. I honestly don’t know if they get health insurance. I don’t really know what the compensation package is because that’s irrelevant to me. I might not even take my salary. I may just donate it to charity.
I don’t need it. I’m just not up to speed, but I’m not necessarily opposed to a pension. But I just don’t know the details of it. But I would say this: that if anybody was to found to have abused our office, they should lose their pension.
You mentioned you’re not doing it for the money. What do you hope to get most from this experience?
I really believe that we’re on a course to disaster. … I just feel — for the protection of my own investment — that I need to try and go in there and not only protect myself but protect the citizens from all of the bad decisions that are being made. … I’m going to do my best to get into office and convince three other commissioners that this is killing us, it’s killing our community, it’s killing our businesses.
How do 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 first of all, it’s not an Empowerment Center — it’s an enabling center. It’s a total failure. While the first thing I would do is not renew the contract with the current people who are not doing a good job, I have a very simple solution for it. First, Dignity Village needs to be closed. It needs to be moved inside the fence, No. 1. And when you walk in there, no drugs, no weapons, no warrants, no pimps, no prostitutes, no children.
No. 2 is if you’re there, there should be a limit on how long you can be there, and you should have to work either maintaining the premises or maintaining other city facilities. You should be required to make some kind of contribution in return for the hospitality that is being extended, and that’ll really solve a lot of the problems.
Then, we need to transition away from this being a government-funded facility to a private-funded facility over time. If there are people that really want to help this challenging population, they should do it with their own money. …
It’s only a matter of time before one of these invitees out there does something really bad, and everyone’s going to say, “Oh yeah, that wasn’t such a great idea in the first place.” There’s a lot of people out there that are dangerous. … It’s a well-intentioned project that was executed horribly and that needs to be revamped, curtailed and privatized. Otherwise, we’re going to have a catastrophe on our hands.
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 the new plaza?
I can guarantee you as someone who lives right here — what are we? About six blocks away? Dignity Village and Grace Marketplace is not reducing homelessness. It’s increasing homelessness. I can guarantee you once that opens up, it will be just like it was before because we talked to homeless people.
Dignity Village and Grace Marketplace are for the bottom of the barrel. The nice homeless people don’t want anything to do with it because it’s not safe. So that’s just sort of becoming a half-way house … and for the nice homeless people, the just down-and-out, they’ll be there, and they are all throughout this neighborhood. So when that opens up, it will be just like it was before. I can personally guarantee you it will be just like it was before. I don’t know what the answer is to that besides to fence it and close it.
So what is your plan for homeless people if you want to get rid of Dignity Village and Grace Marketplace?
We’re the city of Gainesville. We are a really small city, and my plan is to make this place less hospitable for homeless people, to be quite frank with you. I am personally battling homelessness. I’m a landlord, so I am providing housing and so are a lot of other people. But this idea that we are going to be this sort of Noah’s Arc and homeless people from all over the world can come to our little community and be saved, I think is a very dangerous and unworkable proposition.
We only have so much resources, and we are located on the interstate. We are in a mild climate. You know they are going to come in droves. … Dignity Village is adjacent to 990 acres of state land, and if we just let it go the way it is, you could have literally thousands of people here and you would have no idea who they were. They would have no address, have no ID.
But homelessness is a very complex thing: There’s alcoholism, there’s drug addiction, there’s mental illness, sometimes all wrapped into one. The best thing for us is to not attract those kinds of people in the first place because we’ll just get a tsunami of homeless people if we don’t do it correctly. I believe that it’s more the mission of private people than the government. Let’s fix our streets. Let’s police our streets. Let’s put [out] our fires. Let’s not try to solve the world’s problems in a town of like 150,000 people.
What will you do to cut taxes in Gainesville?
It would be dishonest to say that you can cut taxes in Gainesville. There is really no way to cut taxes in Gainesville, and that is because a vast majority of the properties are off the tax rolls. … There’s just very few properties on the tax rolls so it’s very unlikely that we’re going to be able to cut the taxes. Now the Gainesville taxes are fairly low, what is high is the combined taxes… I don’t see anyway to cut taxes but I will say there are people who are abusing the exemptions. …
I think that one thing we can, and should do, is if someone is coming in for approval for a project, we need to find out up front: Are we dealing with a private developer, or are we dealing with the University of Florida? And flesh that out right from the very beginning. Who is this? Is this just a Trojan horse who’s going to build the Continuum and say, “Oh, by the way, we don’t want to pay taxes because we were really the University of Florida,” claiming that some kind of complex trusteeship or whatever. …
That’s really where the taxpayer can get relief, attack the university for having this very sophisticated scheme to give nothing to our local government, if possible.
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?
Right across the street there, we have the Thomas Center, and it’s very business-friendly if you have connections or if you have consultants who used to work for the city. It’s basically a very politicized process … and it’s been that way for a very long time. And to his credit, the mayor and other commissioners have really cracked down on this.
One thing that I think would be very doable and very helpful is that I think there should be a live Web feed of all interactions between the first level of bureaucracy and the prospective businessperson for a couple of reasons. That way, we can see if anybody is not given the attitude and service that entrepreneurs deserve, No. 1. No. 2 is it’ll give people ideas as to what kind of businesses people are wanting to pursue.
So if you don’t have a job and don’t know what to do, you can watch this feed on the Internet, and you could actually watch businesses forming and see what is going on. Another thing is to do exactly what they are doing. It’s to create a mindset of everything being politicized, and if you have connections, you get one deal. And if you don’t have connections, you get another deal that has to be rooted out of the culture of the city.
I think the commissioners are trying to do that. … I think that we need to take a very close look to see if someone wants to build a 14-story building, but if someone just wanted to have a little innocuous business, not only should that be facilitated, but it should be celebrated.
How big an issue is crime in this city, and what do you plan to do to fight crime and improve policing?
Our police chief, Tony Jones, has done a fantastic job. The way I see it is that there are different kinds of crime. Someone steals my newspaper; they steal something out of a car; there’s petty theft. That sort of thing is always going to go on. I don’t think there’s any solution for it.
Then there’s violent crime, and from what I can see, violent crime tends to be directed against women. And it can come from acquaintances, or it can just come from predators. I don’t know that there is much that I can do as a landlord or our policemen can do for a woman that places her trust with the wrong person. …
We have to support our police department, and getting back to Dignity Village, if you look at how many times they run out there to deal with that thing, well that’s diluting the protection elsewhere. … I’m of the impression that the police do everything that they can to protect us, but we’re always going to have an inordinate number of bad people because we’re surrounded by maximum-security prisons. …
Gainesville has always had a disproportionate number of deviants and criminals, and from my perspective, the incoming freshmen class at the University of Florida is 70 percent female. It used to be an all-boys school, [but] it’s 70 percent female. So that is a very fertile ground for deviants, predators and criminals. …
The abuse of alcohol fuels a lot of the crime. But again, students tend not to like it when the police are checking an ID and the bar [is] closing at 2. But there is a fine line between respecting people’s rights and protecting them. … The police really are in a difficult position. When I see the Swamp [restaurant], like I go to bed early because I have a child, but when I drive through town at 2 a.m., it’s really dangerous out there. You have cops on horseback. People don’t go out until 11 and at 2 o’clock. That’s a very dangerous situation. But if they said “no alcohol,” you’d just go to the next city.
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?
I’m not really sure what I think about it. The mayor’s office is largely ceremonial, and I don’t think we can do things like that without examining the structure of our city government. But I’m not really for that. Most mayors have full-time jobs, and they’re mayor. And they are on the board of judges at GRU, and they’re not paid much money. When the city manager is a professional with the kind of salary over there to just focus on managing the city’s large staff of people.
What is your position regarding underage patrons being allowed into drinking establishments and the local business people saying they rely upon underage drinking for “three quarters of his business?”
I’m a very much, very protective of people’s rights, and I don’t like the idea of regulating lifestyle of adults. I don’t believe that a lot of rules really change anything because you can always buy the alcohol from the store [and] drink at home, and you’re always going to have people of age buying alcohol for people not of age. I have tenants that brew their own.
So the idea that we can regulate it at the retail establishment is a big fiction. I honestly don’t know the solution. I don’t drink. … I just really don’t know the answer. … But I do know alcohol causes a lot of misery. …
I would leave it up to our police department to try and navigate that road. It’s just a very thorny issue. … It’s just a big mess. … The University of Florida should take actions administratively against people committing crimes — just like they would for a football player on a scholarship. All students should be subject to administrative consequences if they are found to have engaged in conduct that is not of the standard of the University of Florida.
Do you think maybe addressing helping out the women would be another way of solving it at the root?
I’m not an expert in this, but once a child is born in a house where there’s lots of children, very little resources and no father, it’s pretty much too late. I have talked to [a] woman that it seems that the more children they have, the more money they get. I know from having one child how expensive it is to properly care for one child, and when you start having lots of children with no father or multiple fathers, it’s too late.
That scenario is going to put a huge burden on the citizens. I don’t care what you do. It’s too late. People have got to be responsible, and they have to be able to support the children they have. It’s not up to the taxpayers and the GRU rate payers to support the people that are having more children than they can afford to properly care for, but that’s a very thorny issue. It’s a moral issue.
It’s a religious issue, and it transcends our local government. It involves our state and federal government, as well.
You said it’s not up to the city government, but you also mentioned earlier that east Gainesville has kind of a negative image because it holds the jail and such things. Do you have a plan to turn that image into a more positive one?
I do have a plan. … The key is to zone property not to benefit a few landowners but to zone property in a way where we efficiently utilize the infrastructure that’s in place. If people want to build high-rise buildings — which, coincidentally, are expensive to build — the only justification for a high-rise building is very, very expensive land. …
This isn’t Manhattan We have a lot of open space here. We’re not on an island or anything. We have plenty of places to build, and another thing you have to keep in mind is our fire department have to deal with these buildings. And I’ve talked to them. They don’t have the resources to deal with a whole bunch of six- to 10-story buildings. Their fire stations are crumbling.
We have so many projects that are just draining our resources, and we aren’t fixing our streets. We’re not giving the firefighters what they need. Sometimes, we’re not giving the police what they need. … So the answer is a comprehensive look at what makes sense financially, what does not make sense financially, to get rid of all the losers that were just basically politicized pet projects that benefited a commissioner and their cronies.
Get rid of those, and give the money to Public Works to fix the street, to the fire department to protect us in these high buildings. And that’s a part of it. It’s not just a matter of building high buildings. We have to provide services to those buildings, and a fire in a 10-story building is fundamentally different than a fire in a two-story building. They need different equipment, different resources, different training, and they told me their not getting it.