Esther Wallace said she did not truly understand the severity of rising utility costs until she found herself sitting at the dining room tables of residents desperate to keep their lights on.
“People were visibly distressed,” said Wallace, executive director of ACTION Network, a federation of about 10 congregations in Gainesville. “They would go over their bills with me and say, ‘I just don’t know how this is happening to me. I’m doing everything I can, yet these bills keep rising.’”
ACTION Network and representatives from local congregations hosted a public meeting with Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy on Thursday to voice concerns about increasing utility rates from Gainesville Regional Utilities, which serves Gainesville and the surrounding areas.
GRU Interim General Manager Kathy Viehe was also present. Passing out copies of her own GRU bill, she said she knew how residents felt.
“I understand that you are unhappy with electric rates,” she said. “I want you to know I’m unhappy too.”
The meeting was held at 7 p.m. at Open Door Ministries, located at 601 NE 19th St.
Wallace said the purpose of the meeting was not to find a single solution but to secure a solid commitment from Braddy that the commission will move forward with changes in GRU leadership structure. Residents were asked to share their experiences.
Agnes Clemons, a retired Gainesville native, shared how difficult it was to manage utilities and her health insurance premium rates. She also said she worries about bills eating into her savings because she is on a fixed income.
“It’s challenging with everything else since it does fluctuate erratically,” Clemons said. “Even though I do everything that is recommended — all my appliances are Energy Star — my rate still fluctuates about $60 to $100 a month.”
Norma Green, a resident of Gainesville for 16 years, said she is also concerned. She said the bill increases have forced some customers to choose between paying for food or paying for health insurance.
“One lady had a bill up one month by $800,” Green said. “By the time she paid health insurance and bills, she had nothing left.”
Green brought a petition signed by local community members detailing the hardships caused by high utilities. She said those who signed are asking the city to intervene and find a solution.
Braddy acknowledged at the meeting that the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, a biomass facility that uses waste wood to produce energy, is the main reason rates have increased significantly over the past two years. The biomass plant affects the pricing on the customer because the city is paying a fixed price above market value.
However, knowing the source of the problem will not bring a quick fix.
“The fact is we are supply-heavy and demand-short,” he said. “We have more power that we need to sell, so we need to look for more customers.”
One of the customers they hope to obtain is the University of Florida, according to Braddy. UF is considering a new energy supply because their contract with Duke Energy is up.
Braddy said that having UF’s business would help GRU regain some of their losses, which would take some of the burden off residents.
But in the meantime, internal changes within GRU are being made to mitigate pressure.
In order to help lower costs, some paid positions were cut, and internal expenditures were not made, according to Braddy.
He said these decisions were made so that customers could experience some rate relief.
GRU will also be taken over by a new general manager June 22.
Former mayors and the previous general manager did not feel rising rates were a major concern, according to Braddy. He hopes the new manager will be able to put together a team of senior staff who can find a solution to lower costs.
Braddy said these changes will yield good news soon. He hopes to vote on a rate reduction within the next two years.
Until then, Braddy said he wants residents to continue to speak out and understand that reducing energy rates will remain his top priority.
He signed a written commitment at the end of the meeting.
“I hope that they know their voice matters,” he said. “I hope they know city leaders do listen to them and understand their concerns.”