City candidates largely critical of biomass plant

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 9:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 9:58 p.m.

Biomass took a beating at a forum for Gainesville City Commission candidates Thursday evening.

At-large candidates Darlene Pifalo and Richard Selwach and District 1 candidate Ray Washington said opposition to the city's contract to buy energy from a wood waste-burning power plant subsidized by an increase in customer electric bills was their main reason for getting in the race. At-large candidates Dejean Cain, Donna Lutz and Nathan Skop also were critical of the biomass plan.

Selwach said he would champion a buyout clause of the city's contract with American Renewables.

Washington said the money that will go to biomass could fund other things in the city.

At-large candidate Lauren Poe, who lost his District 2 seat in last year's election, thanked the local Chamber of Commerce for supporting biomass when the City Commission was deliberating over the plan.

Thursday night's candidate forum was conducted by the Business Community Coalition, a group formed between the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Builders Association of North Central Florida and the Gainesville-Alachua County Association of Realtors. The forum was held at the GACAR office.

Ten of the 11 candidates for two seats in the Jan. 31 election were in attendance, with at-large candidate Mark Venzke absent. At-large commissioner Jeanna Mastrodicasa and Scherwin Henry in District 1 are term-limited and thus could not run for re-election.

In response to a question about economic development goals, most candidates said they would like to speed the permitting process.

At-large candidate James Ingle said he would streamline codes so the process is quicker but not necessarily weaker, and he would properly staff departments, saying job cuts have slowed permitting.

Lutz said the city should have an ombudsman to help people with permitting. She later said, while waving a book of the city budget, that her priority is to eliminate the city's debt.

"If we don't get rid of debt, we're not going anywhere," she said.

Poe said he would like to see the fast-track permitting established for Innovation Square transferred to the city as a whole, a sentiment shared by District 1 candidate Armando Grundy. Poe later touted his work with the chamber's Innovation Gainesville economic development plan as something that could help with other issues in the community.

Grundy said his priority was to improve the quality of jobs in District 1, as well as improve public transportation and reduce crime.

Cain said one of his priorities is to work on enacting the Plan East Gainesville economic development plan. He also said he would like to see bars stay open later so patrons have time to sober up for safety reasons.

District 1 candidate Yvonne Hinson-Rawls said Plan East Gainesville was her top priority. She said that, in addition to streamlined permitting, the city should offer utility rebates or tax incentives to lure businesses.

Skop emphasized that he would try to restore trust in the commission by listening to citizens and cutting wasteful spending. He said his priorities are to make sure police and fire services have adequate resources, to promote economic development and to mitigate Gainesville Regional Utilities' rates

"Fiscal responsibility starts by ending wasteful spending. My opponent has not learned that lesson," Skop said, which Poe took as a dig at him.

With candidates asked how they would balance the city budget, Selwach said he is taking a "cut government spending pledge" and would consider eliminating city departments.

Pifalo said she would explore privatizing some city services to see if open bids would save money.

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