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Gainesville Activists Want Shift In City Budget Priorities, But Will Likely Have To Wait A Year

Activists have spent the past three weeks trying to urgently sway Gainesville city budget decisions.

They have a group of city commissioners receptive to their demands. They have a nationwide moment of civil reflection on spending priorities. They seek immediate change at a time when that’s seemingly more possible than ever.

What they don’t have is time.

Some of their demands may have been met had they organized months ago. But with only two weeks to go before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, city commissioners have their hands tied.

The city's budget process starts every January, when initial plans are drawn up. In the weeks that follow, budget items undergo revisions by city budget staff and commissioners, who provide feedback for modifications. By July, the city manager releases a finalized budget draft to the City Commission for additional revisions and tweaks before it’s finalized in September.

With September halfway over, the city’s 2020-21 budget is nearly final, with room for only minor changes following the last budget hearing of the month.

“Frankly, it’s irresponsible to make major changes to the budget so late in the process, but I think this is a blueprint going forward,” City Commissioner David Arreola said in a phone interview.

Roughly a dozen callers during Thursday night’s commission meeting criticized an increase to Gainesville Police Department’s budget, demanding a reallocation of funds. The city’s increase in funding for police body cameras, disagreement over who pays for school resource officers and Gainesville’s “Basketball Cop” drew ire in some callers’ public comments.

To those complaints, Mayor Lauren Poe emphasized the city’s additional spending toward art programs, teachers and mental health specialists – and no additional spending on sworn police officers.

The drastic influx of public comments at recent commission meetings hints at a trend toward more civic engagement than previously seen. One frequent caller was taken aback at being denied the chance to comment before a vote on fire assessment rates because “the phone lines are being jammed up by a bunch of people” protesting to defund the police department.

Callers echoed the concerns raised at a first-of-its-kind forum held earlier this month that drew input from residents who otherwise wouldn’t attend commission meetings.

The Goddsville Dream Defenders, a Gainesville chapter of the statewide abolitionist organization, hosted the event, which highlighted testimonials from community members who say they are affected by racist policing and immigration laws. Dozens tuned in on Zoom and Facebook Live to discuss what they deemed worthy of more funding.

Among the chief concerns were safety, food security and inequitable housing.

How they formed and how they could succeed next year

Arreola, the only city commissioner to attend the inaugural forum, suggested that starting these discussions earlier in the process – say, February – may have had a bigger impact on the upcoming budget. He added this is the first time he has seen an activist organization gather people together to “strategically” envision the budget on a broad level.

“If they continue this energy, if they continue this cultivation of the people to think about their city’s government at a much higher level than individual line items, this could be a great segue into the next budget discussion,” Arreola said.

The nonprofit Dream Defenders organization, which has other chapters known as “SquaDDs” in Miami, Orlando, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Broward County and Hillsbourough County, was created in 2012 following the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black boy shot by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Since the police murder of George Floyd in May and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Dream Defenders have rallied citizens to voice their opinions at protests and city government meetings.

Although commission meetings and budget hearings are open to the public, the Goddsville Dream Defenders note that the residents most affected by the budget — including parts of the Black, Latino and homeless communities — are often the least likely to attend, said Dmitry Podobreev, a Dream Defender and 22-year-old University of Florida student.

“Usually what we have is the ability to just go to the (commission) meeting,” said Jason von Meding, 38, in a phone interview. “The...(forum) is about giving community and citizens power and decision-making responsibility and agency in how the budget is allocated, rather than just allowing them to come into the room and hear their grievances.”

Sara Tito, a Peru native and active member of Madres Sin Fronteras (Mothers without Borders), a grassroots human rights organization in Gainesville dedicated to protecting immigrant children, said she hopes children in schools have access to food and that utility bills will not be so high for those who can least afford the expenses.

“There’s not enough (money) to help everyone, and even for the people who have received help, it hasn’t been enough,” Tito said during the forum, as translated by Liz Ibarrola.

She added that her Gainesville Regional Utilities bill has previously exceeded $800.

Small wins along the way

Parts of the advocates' agenda are moving forward. City commissioners earlier this month approved a new ordinance for rental regulations, meant to force landlords to better regulate rentals for safety hazards and to increase energy efficiency.

Advocates say the rental ordinance should help reduce utility costs for low-income residents whose power bills are sometimes higher than their rent, said Sheila Payne, an Alachua County Labor Coalition board delegate for Veterans for Peace and Dream Defenders fiscal advisor.

“People, especially low-income people, are not going to call,” Payne, 63, said in a phone interview. “They don’t want to be evicted. The landlord would know they have called. So they (rentals) all will be inspected and will have to be brought up to code.”

Her words echoed those of Poe at a City Commission meeting earlier this month.

“The groundskeeper who works at the university, or the custodian that makes sure the professor’s office and classroom are clean — (they) deserve to live in high-opportunity neighborhoods, and they deserve to be a part of this conversation,” he said.

Payne emphasized the need for affordable housing when luxury student apartments can have a certain amount of vacancy due to their high rates, leaving Gainesville’s poor feeling helpless.

“It’s a classic sign of too much poverty in Gainesville and no one caring,” she said.

Forum attendees and callers Thursday night expressed a desire for the city to fund more youth programs rather than policing efforts like school resource officers, who the Dream Defenders say play a decisive role in the school-to-prison pipeline. Discussions about transferring the costs of officers to the Alachua County School Board have been underway since June among commissioners.

Payne added that she disagrees with the methods used by the Reichert House – a youth program near and dear to Chief Tony Jones for at-risk children from poor neighborhoods or single-parent households. The program, Payne said, too often guides young Black men and boys by militarizing their experience.

The Reichert House, which is partially funded through the Gainesville Police Department, has spent more than $828,000 in the 2020 fiscal year, which city records show is nearly $200,000 over budget.

Goddsville Dream Defender and co-host of the forum Kiara Laurent said in a phone interview that their efforts to put pressure on commissioners was inspired by change, like defunding police departments, occurring in other parts of the country.

“Even if the budget is not finalized in our favor,” she said, “we know that when the next budget comes, we’re really going to push for participatory budgeting.”

Marlowe is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.