Ron Cunningham: Rewind '90

Published: Sunday, August 19, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 17, 2012 at 11:30 p.m.

Ratepayers marching in the street, demanding their money back.

County commissioners calling for a state investigation.

Anti-biomass activists who simply won't go away.

I can't remember a time when Gainesville Regional Utilities has been under fire from so many quarters.

On second thought, I can.

It was in 1990. And with all the current sound and fury surrounding our city-owned utility, it's worth doing a rewind.

Because that was the year Alachua County's Legislative Delegation — George Kirkpatrick, Sid Martin and David Flagg — appointed a citizen's task force to look into whether direct control of GRU ought to be taken away from the city commission in favor of an independent governing board.

It was no bluff. The Legislature had already created an autonomous board to run the Gainesville Regional Airport. So why not GRU?

But why the fuss?

Well, at the time, city and county commissioners were fighting over who should pay for street lights and fire hydrants in the unincorporated area.

GRU's acquisition of the old Gainesville Gas Co. raised hackles over a government-owned utility intruding into the private sector.

There was the usual griping about GRU's surcharge on non-city resident customers.

And folks were growing increasingly wary of how much “profit” was being taken from the utility to stuff the city budget.

In 1990, the GRU subsidy was less than $15 million.

Twenty two years later, it's more than $36 million.

“I'm getting tired of people calling me up and saying the utility department isn't being run right,” “Big Sid” Martin, delegation chair, grumbled when the task force idea was sprung.

Needless to say, commissioners were hopping mad.

“I'm going to fight tooth and nail to keep GRU a part of the city,” then City Commissioner (and later County Commissioner) Rodney Long vowed in a typical City Hall reaction.

Conspiracy theories abounded. Developers were scheming to pry GRU away from a no-growth commission. The county wanted a cut of the action. There was even speculation that the push for an independent board was coming from inside GRU itself.

But whatever the real plot was, it never did thicken.

The 11-member task force had some public hearings and spirited debates, but could not come to consensus over a governing board.

It did recommend that the GRU director be made a city charter officer, which came to pass.

And that the surtax on out-of-city residents be ended in favor of a county utility tax, which did not.

But while nothing really changed, it was a useful exercise.

As an obscure Sun editorial writer (whose name has likely been lost in the mist of history) opined at the time: “If nothing else it served to demonstrate...that the utility is in good hands.”

Still, you have to wonder.

Given what's going on now — with GRU's bond ratings sinking and its rates rising — what would happen if a new legislative delegation next year decided to repeat that useful exercise.

Would the outcome be different?

Only one way to find out, really.

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