In District 4 race, biomass plant, transportation key issues
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 5:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 10:58 p.m.
Three candidates are vying for the City Commission District 4 seat: University of Florida student Alfredo Espinosa, former City Commissioner Mac McEachern and incumbent Randy Wells.
Espinosa, a member of Florida Blue Key who is studying building construction, said Gainesville Regional Utilities' electric rates are a priority issue, particularly with the biomass plant scheduled to come online later this year, which should mean higher electric rates.
He said he's concerned about the economic impact of higher rates on employers and households.
“Cutting down utility rates is definitely one of my top goals,” he said. “It affects not only residents but business owners.”
Besides transportation issues such as expanding transit service and fixing roads, Espinosa's platform also includes some issues related to UF.
He would like to see soft bar closings, with alcohol sales stopping at 2 a.m. but customers allowed to stay to purchase food and nonalcoholic beverages. Espinosa said he sees it as a public safety issue. Having students “herded like cattle” into the street at 2 a.m. might lead to fights and issues with drunken driving, he said.
Espinosa said he also feels 2 a.m. closings lead to price gouging on the part of taxi drivers, leading some UF students to make a poor decision to take an unsafe walk home or to drive intoxicated. That is a Student Government issue he said he would like to bring to City Hall.
McEachern, who served on the City Commission from 1981 to 1987, said his campaign's primary focus is on GRU rates and the “awful” biomass contract.
He said the commission should take a more hardline approach than demanding arbitration over the city's allegation that the biomass firm violated the contract when it sold a 40 percent stake in the plant in late 2011 without giving the city the right of first offer.
He also said city commissioners have violated the ordinance governing use of the electric fuel adjustment charge by collecting more than actual costs from customers now to limit future rate increases from the biomass plant. McEachern, who was in office in 1985 when the latest version of the fuel adjustment ordinance was adopted, said customers should receive a refund.
On transportation, he said east Gainesville needs better bus service and, while sidewalks and bike paths are part of the system, the city needs a “common sense” approach that increases the investment in road repair.
He's also critical of the current rules for the 6 p.m. general public comment period at commission meetings, which require signing up in advance and limit speakers to three minutes.
McEachern's home is in the old boundaries of District 4 but not within the boundaries commissioners unanimously adopted in December while completing the post-census redistricting process.
He signed a sworn affidavit of residency and then was allowed to qualify for the race. McEachern has said he feels he meets the residency requirements because he signed up to run before Mayor Craig Lowe signed the redistricting ordinance and before the Supervisor of Elections Office received a signed copy of the ordinance. The ordinance states that it was effective upon adoption by the City Commission.
Campaigning for a second term, Wells said he hears feedback about the progress the city has made in attracting companies to the area and concerns about the rate impact of the biomass plant.
Wells, who was not in office when the biomass contract was approved in 2009, said the plant is one piece of a “sustainable energy policy” that includes solar and conservation to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
He has supported the use of the fuel adjustment charge to build up a fund, now at about $23 million, as a “completely reasonable” decision to mitigate a significant increase in the fuel adjustment charge when the plant goes online.
Wells said his priorities include acquiring the shuttered Gainesville Correctional Institution as the site of a long-planned, yet unbuilt homeless shelter and assistance center. He said social service agencies and nonprofits are now in talks to have a presence there that includes job training.
“Our human services need to be connected to economic opportunity,” Wells said.
On transportation, Wells said: “We need to have a balanced solution” that includes road repairs, the development of bicycle and pedestrian paths, improvement of the current bus system and planning now for the bus rapid transit system that a majority of the current commission seeks to develop in the future.
Wells said he felt the city has been able to achieve “great progress” in the economic downturn with the start of Innovation Square and the redevelopment of the Power District and the ongoing remediation and development of Depot Park.