Again, biomass dominates at city candidate debate


Published: Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 11:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 11:42 p.m.

Nathan Skop referred to Lauren Poe as “my opponent who was voted out of office” so often that the crowd started to murmur louder each time. Ultimately, the moderator had to ask Skop to stop.

Skop and Poe and five of the six other candidates running for an at-large seat on the Gainesville City Commission took part in what was billed as a debate on Thursday night, where the gloves were expected to come off more than during the more traditional forums.

As has been the case throughout the campaign, the prevailing theme at the event, sponsored by the Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus, was the commission’s 2009 deal to purchase biomass power, a decision that will increase electric bills by an estimated $10.56 a month for the average homeowner in the short term.

The long term is what Poe and the rest of the field are at significant odds over.

Poe, who represented District 2 on the commission before losing his re-election bid in April, stood by his vote for the contract on Thursday, saying biomass energy, in the end, will be more affordable than alternatives like coal and natural gas.

Skop has been advocating that the commission get out of the contract, saying it is a pending “financial disaster,” but there is no back-out clause in the deal.

If there had been, the deadline by which the city could pay its way out would likely have already passed.

“I find it alarming that so many people — some even attorneys — advocate that we break a contract,” Poe said, arguing that it would drive companies away from doing business with the city and hurt Gainesville’s bond ratings.

Skop said the opposite — that keeping the deal intact will hurt the city’s bond status.

“He needs to stop drinking the Kool-Aid and be honest,” Skop said of Poe.

Skop was a member of the Florida Public Service Commission when the biomass proposal came before that body in 2010, when he ultimately voted in favor of the plant, which was approved 3-2.

Donna Lutz attacked Skop on that front. “Now he is an advocate against it,” Lutz said. “That’s a very big decision to change your mind on.”

Darlene Pifalo said the contract was never valid in the first place and “should be investigated by the court system.”

Either way, Pifalo said higher utility bills as a result will keep businesses from hiring new employees.

Candidates were also asked about wasteful spending at City Hall.

Skop pointed to the fire-service assessment that “my opponent who was voted out of office stuck us with” as an unnecessary tax because the city is looking at a surplus this year.

He also said the city should not have appealed a case in which a group of labor unions sued the city over changes to retiree health plans that weren’t negotiated. He also questioned the commission clerk’s decision to hire Mayor Craig Lowe’s former campaign manager as Lowe’s research assistant.

James Ingle also pointed to the city’s appeal in the union case, which it lost, as well as the amount of public art at Gainesville Regional Utilities’ new compound on North Main Street, where there’s “no access for the public to be there.”

“It causes huge problems of morale and trust,” he said.

Poe said that when he was on the commission, it cut $15 million from the budget.

“We cut as much as we possibly could to keep our city healthy and effectively moving forward,” he said. “No matter who you are, if you don’t like what the money is being spent on, then it is wasteful.”

DISTRICT 1

With the at-large panel taking up more than two hours, there was only about 40 minutes left for the three candidates running for the District 1 seat to field questions.

Biomass also was a major theme, with three varied opinions on the issue.

Yvonne Hinson-Rawls said she thought biomass was “great idea” and a good alternative power source.

Armando Grundy said the plant was already being built and that none of the candidates had anything to do with the decision.

Ray Washington, who represented a group of litigants who filed appeals to state permits for the facility, called the deal a “bad, terrible idea.”

Grundy took Washington to task for not revealing the confidential settlement he and his clients made with the owner of the biomass plant, in which they dropped their appeals in exchange for at least payments to a group of nonprofit organizations.

“Are you caring about this to line your pockets or are you caring about this to protect the ratepayers?” Grundy asked.

Washington rebutted that he was representing citizens and any compensation he got was from them.

He also said that Grundy just recently moved into District 1 from District 3, where he ran for that area’s commission seat in 2008.

Washington also took on Hinson-Rawls because she is being backed by Lowe and three sitting commissioners.

“If you are going to change the City Commission, you need to have people who are willing to stand up to the City Commission,” he said.

For her part, Hinson-Rawls said, “I do believe the city is moving forward.”

Contact Chad Smith at 338-3104 or chad.smith@gvillesun.com.

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