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GRU solutions and opinions arise at latest city agenda meetings

The main GRU building receives many visitors daily. (Jake Bower/WUFT News)
The main GRU building receives many visitors daily. (Jake Bower/WUFT News)

Thursday afternoon marked the latest chapter in the battle among Tallahassee lawmakers, Gainesville city commissioners and concerned residents over the $1.7 billion debt amassed by Gainesville Regional Utilities. Through the regularly scheduled general policy committee meeting in the afternoon followed by the utility advisory board in the evening, city workers and locals alike voiced their possible solutions to the growing problem.

Yesterday’s packed agenda aimed in part to address the increasing concern over debt accumulated by GRU, much of which is contributed to the purchase of the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center biomass plant in 2017 for $757 million — an acquisition originally meant to curb growing costs from the city’s contract with its previous owners. Prices for natural gas, biomass and other energy sources have also remained costly, contributing to the continued debt.

As a result, utility bills for residents remain at a comparative high when looked at against rates across other municipalities in Florida.

Thursday’s meetings also comes after an ultimatum put into writing from the Florida state legislature: State Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, introduced House Bill 1645 on Monday which would take away utility decision-making privileges from the Gainesville city commissioners and would hand the reins to a board appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The general policy committee meeting kicked off with a presentation from GRU staff members on a new formula to be used in determining the government services contribution, which is the annual transfer of funds from GRU to the general government to support the delivery of municipal services and programs. The contribution for the current 2023 fiscal year is valued at about $34.3 million. A reworking of the formula would reduce it to $15.3 million for the 2024 fiscal year. The staff members said ideally it could reduce the debt for the next decade by $315 million and bring the utility to a 70% capitalization rate, a sign of stability.

"It means that you're going to have a utility that is far healthier,” Casey Willits, city commissioner for district 3, said in support of the formula. “Hopefully in the future it can contribute to perhaps either holding their utility rates steady or even reduction at some point well into the future.”

The city and GRU will continue to hold workshops and presentations throughout the year to seek other methods that could reduce the debt in hopes of fending off the demands from the state legislature and its committees, such as the Florida Joint Legislative Auditing Committee who have asked for urgent action from the commissioners.

"My hope is that even when we get past this year and get past the current legislative questions, that this will provide a good stable formula moving forward," Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward added.

Later that evening at the utility advisory board meeting, the board voted in support of asking the city commissioners to convene with the legislative delegation behind House Bill 1645 to discuss the matter as well as to consider public opinion on the possible takeover. The commanding action has drawn comparisons to DeSantis’ attempt on Disney’s Reedy Creek development by some opponents, but others felt that the house bill would create a positive shift for Gainesville’s utility climate.

“Let’s make the change for Gainesville by taking in great leadership under Republican representation,” said Donald Shepherd, a resident and former mayoral candidate, who spoke in support of the house bill during public comment at the meeting. “If these governors or senators are listening, ‘back me here.’ If you’re asking for my back then I’ll give it.”

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