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Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority maintains funds, cuts spending and ties to General Government

From left, Tony Cunningham, Eric Lawson, Robert Karow, Craig Carter, James Coats and two others listen during the GRU Authority meeting on Wednesday. February 7, 2024. (Arda Utkan/WUFT News)
From left, Tony Cunningham, Eric Lawson, Robert Karow, Craig Carter, James Coats and two others listen during the GRU Authority meeting on Wednesday.(Arda Utkan/WUFT News)

The authority members failed in a vote to cut the entirety of the utility's contribution to city government, a move that would have represented about a $15 million reduction in Gainesville municipal operations.

The Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority on Wednesday approved a series of fiscal changes that loosened its ties to the city’s General Government and reduced spending.

By a unanimous vote, GRU’s governing members cut payments to the City Commission and ConnectFree while confirming more independent broadcasting, legal services, auditing and clerking, among other changes.

According to General Manager Tony Cunningham, the move represents a step in the process of defining the GRU’s foggy relationship with the city’s government.

“We’re trying to define where those relationships are,” Cunningham said. “We want to go through an exercise of buy or build.”

GRU has made efforts to analyze whether its services are best obtained in-house, by the General Government or externally through contractors.

“We’re trying to take decisions where we’re absolutely going to save money,” Cunningham said.

In 2023, GRU’s mounting debts and the City Commission’s use of utility revenues led to the Florida Legislature and governor shifting control of GRU out from under city commissioners and to the state. With this change, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed new members to the authority. GRU has since struggled in defining a solid, clear relationship with General Government.

GRU’s resolution has been to operate in a business-like fashion, as Authority Chair Craig Carter illustrated:

“I will say consistently, you’ll have to bid our business,” said Carter, himself a former city commissioner. GRU’s new policy has been to obtain its services from whatever source is cheapest.

A different resolution that would have entirely halted the General Services Contribution, a $15.3 million sum that GRU typically pays the General Government, failed with a 2-2 vote. If it had passed, immediate cuts to city services such as police, firefighters, parks and roads could have occurred.

Board Member Eric Lawson, who voted against the motion, stated that the withholding of the entire contribution before prior discussion with the City Commission would have been haphazard.

Vice Chair James Coats IV, compared GRU’s financial situation to a “patient bleeding out” and the act of withholding the contribution akin to applying a tourniquet.

City Commissioner Bryan Eastman said the city government will continue to struggle with its already poor fiscal situation as revenues from the GRU are reconsidered.

“Right now, we’re going through severe budget cuts,” Eastman said in an interview before the meeting. “We’ve had to eliminate 125 positions.”

Eastman discussed the difficulties of dealing with the new organization of GRU.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere in the United States,” said Eastman, “We’ve been dealing with the fallout ever since then.”

The ConnectFree program dedicated to aiding water, wastewater and connection for affordable housing projects, previously funded through a surcharge from out-of-city customers collected by GRU, will lose its funding source as the utility ceases collection of that specific surcharge.

Eastman said the program might not survive without an alternative funding source.

One attendee at the meeting, Alex Hood, expressed dissatisfaction with ConnectFree’s loss of funding.

“It brings in about $150 for every dollar put into it,” said Hood. “It doesn’t actually have an impact on GRU’s finances.”

Alachua County Labor Coalition Coordinator Bobby Mermer also endorsed ConnectFree and protested elimination of its funding.

“I urge you, consider how successful the program is,” Mermer said, disagreeing with the utility leadership’s suggestion that the surcharge collection done for ConnectFree was largely disconnected to the program itself.

Carter, who said he’d worked on ConnectFree in the past, stated that many had an overly positive view of the program.

“It wasn’t being used to connect sewers and water wells,” he said. “If folks think they are connecting sewer and water, that’s not what they’re doing.”

Carter said the program did not fulfill its original goal efficiently, which is why it broadened its function with low-income households.

Opposing public commenters at the meeting illustrated the controversial nature of GRU’s current organization. One attendee, Debbie Martinez, stated her dissatisfaction with the City Commission’s former control of GRU.

“I don’t think you should explain to them why you are doing your job,” she said. “Your job is to protect GRU customers.”

Kim Popejoy, another attendee, opposed the new GRU control structure.

“The current GRU is once again trying to turn into a private utility company,” Popejoy said. “Every decision this board makes is illegitimate. This board will not stand.”

Arda is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing