Officials to vote on GRU head


Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 12:01 a.m.

A clear majority of commissioners appears ready to select a new Gainesville Regional Utilities general manager Monday, despite concerns from some of their colleagues and constituents that the final pool of candidates is too small.

The City Commission publicly interviewed three finalists for the position Saturday, rounding out a two-day series of interviews, tours of the city and public appearances.

It is not clear which of the candidates, who include a high-ranking GRU official and two out-of-town public utility managers, commissioners will select. But after Saturday's meeting, few commissioners seemed likely to vote in favor of restarting the search process.

The search for a new general manager has been under way since March, when former GRU chief Mike Kurtz resigned. Kurtz had butted heads with some city commissioners over his public endorsements of a plan to build a new, 220-megawatt coal-fueled power plant and left after commissioners voted to pay him a year's salary, $166,000, in exchange for his resignation.

Saturday's interviews revealed several features that are common among all the candidates.

They have all served in the highest echelons of municipal utilities. They all professed support for beefing up conservation programs, particularly those aimed at helping low-income residents. And they all promoted a vision of a fiscally responsible utility that could work to reduce rates.

Sandford Novick, who resigned as general manager of the Lansing (Mich.) Board of Water and Light last year after his contract was not renewed, said keeping rates low is one of the most important tasks for a utility manager, particularly since rates act as such a "visible benchmark." To keep rates low, Novick argued that the city should reduce the sum GRU is required to transfer into the city's coffers each year.

This year, that transfer equaled about $30 million, more than one-third of the city's budget. Novick said this increases rates and creates a regressive tax by allowing lower property tax rates — benefiting those with high property values — while putting a larger tax burden on those with low incomes.

"Low-income people are getting a higher rate because people with property" want a lower tax rate, he said.

Andy Ramirez, vice president of power generation for the El Paso Electric Company and a former manager at Austin Electric, said he sees the future of GRU's electrical supply in either coal or nuclear power sources.

But he also questioned GRU's contention that a 220-megawatt power plant is necessary at this time, noting the utility's base capacity is only 600 megawatts. And, noting the political gridlock that has kept the commission from deciding on how to meet the city's future energy for more than three years, Ramirez said it might be time to scrap the current process and start over.

"You need to get the stakeholders involved and give it another look," he said. "It might take less time to do that rather than spin around and find that three years later you haven't done anything."

David Richardson, GRU's assistant general manager for water/wastewater utilities, advocated continuing the process already under way for dealing with Gainesville's future energy needs. This includes studying responses by other utilities and companies that might have solutions or options that GRU could participate in.

Richardson also supported targeting low-income households with conservation programs designed to increase their energy efficiency and reduce their utility bills.

"What I can tell you is that's got to be a focus of our strategy for energy conservation, that it's across the board," Richardson said. "It has to address folks with particular needs like low-income customers."

While many residents took a softer tone at Saturday's meeting than they have in past criticism of the search for a new general manager, many remained critical.

"We certainly don't have any ideal candidate. We may not get one no matter how long we search," said Dian Deevy, a member of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee who has argued that the commission should restart the search process.

Arguments from residents questioning the environmental commitment of some candidates, particularly with regard to their willingness to invest in coal-fired power plants, ruffled some commissioners.

"No candidate swore off coal completely," Commissioner Ed Braddy said. "If that is the litmus test that some people are going to hold up as the ideal, I think they should explicitly state that and be ready for an extraordinarily long search."

Some critics of GRU said even as they oppose the candidates, they were gratified to hear Ramirez and Novick echo some of their concerns about the utility's policies.

"Even though this process doesn't satisfy many of us, at least we've had some useful comments," said Joshua Dickinson, who has been critical of the small number of finalists.

Jeff Adelson can be reached at 352-374-5095.

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