Gainesville has longstanding problems in areas such as housing and health care that were only worsened by the pandemic. A windfall of federal funding offers an opportunity to better address these problems in the short term and into the future.
The city is getting about $32 million in funding through the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden. Treasury Department guidelines require the money to be used for such purposes as addressing negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic, supporting public health expenditures and investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
The Gainesville City Commission was recently scheduled to discuss how to spend the money. The city previously created a written form for commissioners and residents to propose relief projects, and held community feedback sessions to gather more input.
The effort to garner community input stands in contrast to Alachua County’s more top-down approach to spending its allocation of $52 million in federal relief money. City commissioners must take public input into consideration when making funding decisions, but make sure the one-time money addresses urgent needs without creating ongoing financial obligations that the city is unable to afford.
The top priority should be providing relief to residents who have missed bills due to losing their jobs or wages as a result of the pandemic. Proposals include providing aid to people behind on their rent, supporting programs that help the homeless, and forgiving or reducing Gainesville Regional Utilities bills for ratepayers who have outstanding balances or had their power shut off multiple times.
The city also has an opportunity to help low-income residents afford housing and utility bills well after the pandemic is over. Several proposals call for millions to be spent on increasing the energy efficiency of local homes, which would help reduce electricity costs even as GRU bills rise.
Another worthwhile idea is using millions of the funding for a community land trust that acquires properties in order to keep the housing on them affordable. Other ideas include subsidies for developers providing low-income housing in market-rate projects.
The funding could also help address disparities in accessing health care and transportation, particularly in east Gainesville. Helping pay for the construction of a UF Health facility on Hawthorne Road would fill in a gap in health clinics on the east side, while an east Gainesville transit station would help reduce commute times for residents.
Another idea being considered is spending more than $3 million to subsidize the development of a community grocery store in east Gainesville. While the lack of a grocery store in the area is a problem that should be addressed, the failure of previous stores in the area gives reason for commissioners to be cautious and make sure the project doesn’t commit them to ongoing subsidies.
Similarly, proposals to spend millions on broadband upgrades should be avoided if they commit the city and GRU ratepayers to subsidizing internet service moving forward. Besides, many of the places lacking broadband are outside city limits and a proposed federal infrastructure bill is slated to provide more funding for expanding service in those areas.
City commissioners should use the American Rescue Plan money to replace funding lost by the pandemic and address problems magnified by it, without creating bigger holes in future budgets.
— Gainesville Sun