Why You Should Care about Gainesville’s Municipal Utility

File Photo: Sen. Keith Perry speaks during the Marion County Delegation at the Klein Conference Center at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, Fla. on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted April 26, 2023 | By Janice Garry, President, League of Women Voters’ of Alachua County

The League of Women Voters’ (LWV) mission is to empower voters and defend democracy. It follows that democracy is best served by respecting Home Rule. In recent years, the legislature has taken away a number of those locally determined powers and regulations. The LWV of Florida has strongly opposed this trend that breeches our core values.

In the current legislative session, this trend has taken a personal turn in Gainesville with the threat of a governor-appointed board, called the Authority, to replace the elected city commission as the governing agency of our publicly owned utility, in direct violation of our city charter and Home Rule. Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) is a municipally owned corporation with checks and balances. The elected commission sets policy, a professional manager who is hired by the city commission runs the utility, and a citizen advisory board advises the city commission.

Under this existing structure, GRU has become the most fuel diversified and reliable utility in Florida, with over 30% renewable energy and a commitment to energy efficiency and conservation that saves money on bills. Its water division is unparalleled. Electric reliability, even in times of crisis, is exceptional, winning national awards. In recent years, GRU incurred a high level of debt, largely from buying out a bad contract and taking ownership of a biomass plant. However, GRU and the city have implemented a multiyear plan to reduce debt that credit rating agencies have approved, maintaining GRU’s investment grade rating and “stable outlook.” When the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee called city officials to task recently, the City Commission made additional rapid, aggressive cuts to the city budget and the funds that are transferred from GRU to general government.

Despite all this, Senator Keith Perry and Representative Chuck Clemons, who have tried and failed for 10 years to change the governance structure of GRU, are trying again. In 2018, they forced a referendum that voters rejected by nearly 60%. This time, they have bypassed voters and Home Rule completely, and are using a legislative process to force their preferred change.   Representative Clemons filed House Bill 1645 (myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Bills/billsdetail.aspx?BillId=78543) that went directly to committee with no meaningful public input. The bill is vaguely drawn with legal, financial and administrative conundrums, but gives the Authority autonomous power over GRU’s operations and assets. There are no checks and balances. The Authority is responsible to the Governor, not the owners of the utility. The bill will be voted on by the House of Representatives, then the Senate and go to the governor’s desk before the end of the session on May 5.

There are other bills in the legislature that would also weaken municipal utilities. (See HBs 125, 1331, SB 194, 1380, 1712.) GRU may be a test case for the governance of the 37 other municipal utilities in Florida. If HB 1645 becomes law, your municipal utility could be next. By all appearances, the bill will pass the legislature. The LWV of Alachua County asks you to contact Gov RonDeSantis  (flgov.com/email-the-governor/) and ask him to veto the bill and use the subject line: Veto HB 1645; Hands Off Municipal Utilities. For more information on Gainesville’s advocacy for our utility, visit LWV of Alachua County (my.lwv.org/florida/alachua).

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