Paying the price: GRU customers question why their bills are so high

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Watch above: Lisa Jordan, 54, talks about how her $2,000 Gainesville Regional Utilities bills have affected her business, Nature’s Pet Day Spa, off of West Newberry Road in northwest Gainesville. (Lauren Witte/WUFT News)

Hayley Shea is a lifelong Gainesville resident who’s considering moving to another state. Why? Because her utility bills are just too high for someone who bakes cakes for a living.

“I feel like they don’t want anybody living here besides college students and old white people,” Shea, 35, said of city officials and especially Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU).

Shea said her utility bill averages $550-600 per month for an apartment off of Williston Road. That’s asking way too much of a single mother supporting her seven children, she said.

“If there were nine days in a week, I would work nine days” to pay all of her bills, Shea said.

Shea is not the only Gainesville native tempted to move because of GRU. Many Gainesville residents have voiced concerns about struggling to pay their high utility bills. GRU has the second highest electricity rate in the state, according to a Florida Municipal Electric Association report released in June. Gainesville’s average rate was $170 per 1000 kilowatt hours.

High bills and rate increases aren’t the only issues GRU customers are facing.

More than 5,000 of them did not get their bills on time in November, and some haven’t received their bills in months, according to a WCJB-TV news report. The company typically sends out about 117,000 bills per month, according to WGFL-TV.

GRU officials have blamed those issues on a shortage of people willing to work as meter readers.

Watch below: GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham discusses how the labor shortage is affecting workflow, and the changes the utility is considering and in the process of making. “There’s a lot of turnover,” Cunningham said. “So we may hire some folks, but then some other folks may leave. So it’s kind of an ever-changing number. And we’re trying to employ a lot of different strategies to retain those employees and recruit those employees to maintain that.” (Lauren Witte/WUFT News)

Leslie Patterson did get her bill in October – and it brought tears to her eyes. Her bills are usually $200-250 month, but that month it was $520, and she said she has no idea why.

It’s all making Patterson have to confront some difficult choices.

“I never thought I’d want to sell my home,” she said, noting that it was passed down to her and her mother from her grandmother.

A GRU employee once came to turn her service off for a $7 late fee. That person did not turn it off after she promised to pay it that day, but she still had to pay a disconnection fee.

Lisa Jordan, 54, opened Nature’s Pet Day Spa in Gainesville in 2001. At her initial location, her utilities – not including water, which was included in her rent – totaled around $400, she said.

Jordan said she moved the spa to a new building in the city around three years ago, and now pays about $1,800 per month. Her utility bill for another spa location, in Summerfield, is about $300.

GRU’s issues stem from the fact that it is run by the Gainesville City Commission, Jordan said.

“The government notoriously just can’t run anything well,” she said.

Watch below: Elaine Jordan and her son Dean Jordan live together at his house in northwest Gainesville. Paying their GRU bills has proved difficult on their fixed and limited incomes. (Lauren Witte/WUFT News)

Iris Clarke, on the other hand, has not personally had a bad experience with GRU. She said her bill increased more than ever this year, but that was still only a $60 monthly increase for her.

A hair stylist and certified nursing assistant, Clarke attributes her low bill to using natural light as much as possible, keeping everything turned off and unplugged when not in use and she’s not watching TV. But Clarke said she has friends whose monthly bills increased from $200 to $500.

Clarke thinks the increases were due to the high rate of inflation troubling the economy.

Still, she said of the bills, “They didn’t have to increase that much.”

Listen below: Dave Noble lives in Magnolia Parke, an unincorporated area just outside Gainesville. He is among those who don’t live in the city but must pay GRU for their utilities, but who are also frustrated that they cannot vote for the city commissioners who control GRU. (Lauren Witte/WUFT News)

Watch below: Tina Days, 44, discusses how she must conserve energy to save money on GRU bills at her house in northeast Gainesville. Days says she leaves open her doors and windows during the winter months so she can soften the blow. (Lauren Witte/WUFT News)

Watch below: City Mayor-Elect Harvey Ward discusses municipal utility companies, how the price of natural gas has affected customers’ GRU bills and the path forward to lowering them. “It is heartbreaking to see people have to … pay the bills that they have to pay,” Ward said. “We’re doing everything we can to try to find other sources to be helpful to people in crisis.” (Lauren Witte/WUFT News)

About Lauren Witte

Lauren is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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