Gainesville residents want state investigation into GRU; city credit rating gets downgraded
Members of a Gainesville Facebook group described the relationship between Gainesville Regional Utilities and the people of Alachua County as toxic.
The comparison was made last month at a legislative delegation meeting between the Gainesville City Commission and members of the public.
Angela Casteel, 47, the administrator of the group, said she is one of many people who have contacted GRU directly about problems.
“You keep giving the same excuses to people for so long,” she said. “People won’t listen to them.”
Casteel said she has done much of the work of compiling complaints of unfair bills, inaccurate meter readings and problems with the utility's website on her own. And those are just some of the things that she takes note of on a weekly basis.
The tension between the local utility company and Gainesville residents isn’t new. In 2015, several members of the community created a Facebook page called Boycott GRU. With nearly 2,000 members, Boycott GRU is the place for Gainesville residents to express complaints about their problems with GRU.
The about page reads “Something needs to be done about GRU and its practices.”
Casteel said that elderly people are often unable to pay bills due to outrageous prices. Some people said they don't receive a GRU bill for three months, then receive one from the utility with no communication, she said.
John Renfro, 20, said he received some high bills from GRU earlier this year.
“I didn’t think too much of it, but my roommates and I tried to do our best to get our numbers back down,” he said.
On Jan. 10, four members of the Facebook group attended a legislative delegation meeting with the Gainesville City Commission.
This was the first City Commission meeting with the newly sworn-in mayor, Harvey Ward, acting as mayor. At these meetings, members of the public are given three minutes to express their concerns to city leaders.
The meeting was an important step for Casteel, Faith Kerr, Nathan Skop and other members of Boycott GRU. They were able to formally request the Alachua County Legislation ask the Florida Public Service Commission to open a docket into GRU. This would launch an investigation into GRU’s proceedings with meter readings, bills and its overall business operation.
“The Legislative Delegation should request the PSC and office of Public Council to open a formal docket and review the GRU rate structure inequities and cross-subsidization issues within GRU,” Skop said at the meeting.
It would take six months to a year for an investigation to begin, Casteel said.
Officials with GRU did not offer a direct response to WUFT’s questions about the requested state-led investigation, but it did provide a statement.
“GRU safely and reliably provides electric, water, wastewater, gas and telecommunications services to more than 100,000 customers in and around Gainesville. While GRU customers inside and outside of city limits are charged the same rates, the Florida Public Service Commission has authorized utility surcharges for customers living outside city limits. Like other municipal utilities, we collect these charges to ensure safe and reliable utility services for all customers.”
State Sen. Keith Perry said it would be beneficial for Gainesville residents to have more options than just GRU.
“I would like to see that the PSC would give people outside of the city of Gainesville an opportunity to decide whether they wanted to continue to have GRU as their provider,” he said.
City of Gainesville’s Credit Rating Decreased
The City of Gainesville’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s investor services on Monday. The announcement was made by Public Information Officer Rossana Passaniti via a press release.
The review was a result of a recent change in Moody’s rating criteria. The new method accounted for enterprise fund debt, such as the debt Gainesville Regional Utilities carries, in addition to other metrics.
GRU accounts for “80 percent of the overall debt,” according to the press release.
Much like how an individual's credit is assessed on their ability to repay, cities are assessed on their ability and willingness to repay investors back their municipal bonds. Municipal bonds are issued by the city to fund day-to-day operations. Investors purchase these bonds, with the hope of receiving their money back with interest.
Cities strive for high ratings to increase the likelihood of investors buying municipal bonds. When more bonds are purchased, the city is able to finance projects easier.
Anthony Russo, 18, pointed out the effect that the University of Florida and Santa Fe College have on the city’s financial situation. He said he hopes students at both institutions understand the implications of Moody’s rating.
Moody’s is one of three major agencies for rating municipal bonds. Although the agencies have minor variations in their methods, they all assess the economy, debt structure, financial condition, demographic factors and management practices of the governing body.
Based on Moody’s rating system, Gainesville was downgraded from Aa3 to Aa2. Despite the change, Gainesville remains in the upper tier of investment grading.
“Obligations rated Aa are judged to be of high quality and are subject to very low credit risk,” according to Moody’s website.
Gainesville resident Christian Bentrovato, 21, hopes that the City of Gainesville remains cognizant of how they manage their finances moving forward.
“You just have to watch what you're spending and make sure you spend on the correct things,” he said.
Overall, the rating still suggests a very stable outlook regarding the City’s ability to repay debt. On Feb. 9, Mayor Harvey Ward will present the city’s progress on its latest financial report to the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee in Tallahassee.
Isabel Kauppi said she hopes the city will bounce back from the decrease in credit rating.
“As a Gainesville Resident, I think it's important to stay where we’re at and get better, not get worse,” she said.
Other central Florida cities have received similar ratings to those of Gainesville. As of 2022, Moody’s rated Jacksonville at Aa2. It also rated the City of Orlando in the same category.