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Gainesville nudges tax rate to support fire services
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Gainesville City Council raised taxes Tuesday for fiscal 2011 to help meet requirements under a federal grant for fire department services.

The council voted 4-1 to set the general-operations tax rate at 1.69 mills, with Councilman George Wangemann in opposition.

The tax rate goes up from 1.43 mills, with 1 mill equal to $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value. Property in Gainesville is assessed at 100 percent.

Translated, that means a $26 jump per $100,000 in property.

The vote followed a long discussion and public hearing on the city's $25.5 million budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Also, Fire Chief Jon Canada introduced 18 new firefighters hired under the Adequate Fire and Emergency Responder grant.

Speaking to Canada, Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras said, "These grants are assisting our citizens, are they not?"

"Yes, ma'am, you are correct," he said.

"The key is that our citizens are not having to pay every ounce of what is needed to protect us ... right?" Figueras said. "So, therefore, I accept in my heart a grant that is going to assist everybody that lives here. And then I'm willing to pay my part to help us keep those grants."

A couple of residents spoke in opposition to the budget.

Ann Greer compared the city's actions to those governing in Washington, D.C., "who spend, spend, spend, then raise taxes on the working American taxpayer."

And Bill Morrison said that when his personal income goes down "I cut expenses" and he expects the same of government.

"The government should shrink and taxes should go down," he said.

The council received a letter from one resident, George T. Stump, supporting the budget.

Referring to public safety in particular, he said in the letter, "These services afford all residents, especially property owners, the benefit of cost savings on their insurance premiums."

The council voted 3-2 on the budget itself, with Wangemann and Councilman Bob Hamrick in opposition.

Wangemann has said his opposition isn't a knock on the fire department but is based on his stance in 2009 that he didn't support the grant because of the possibility of a tax increase.

Hamrick said he initially voted for the budget but has since done more research on budget numbers. He said the city's latest audit shows $14 million in nondesignated revenues.

"In my opinion, we have sufficient money that does not require a tax increase this year," he said.

City Manager Kip Padgett said the city is prohibited by state law to touch some of the money in those accounts.

"Some funds can be reappropriated — for example, economic development and community development (money)," he said.

"However ... you are using one-time funds for recurring operating expenses. Secondly, you will be depleting these funds. But the issue remains - you still got recurring operating expenses and now you don't have one-time funds that you did have."

Wangemann said, "Generally speaking, that's probably a good business practice not to use one-time funds for recurring expenses. Then, you're in the hole again the following year and wondering what to do."

Mayor Ruth Bruner said, "We've been over this budget for weeks with a fine-tooth comb and I want to assure everyone that we don't have $14 million just sitting there.

"We've cut to the bone. We've cut back people and ... cut departments."

The city's total tax rate is 2.92 mills, with 1.69 mills for general government operations, 0.75 mills for parks and recreation and 0.48 mills for debts and interest.

The council also voted 5-0 to fix the tax rate for the Gainesville Board of Education at 7.71 mills, the same as it is this year.

In other business, the council voted to raise sewer and water rates by 6 percent.

Sewer rates are $6.73 per 100 cubic feet inside the city and $7.03 per 100 cubic feet outside the city. Water rates increase with consumption, now beginning at $2.28 per 100 cubic feet in the city and $4.56 per 100 cubic feet outside the city.