County mulls approaching city about GRU rates
Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 6:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 6:28 p.m.
The Alachua County Commission spent part of its Tuesday policy discussion considering what, if any, communication it may want to initiate with the city of Gainesville regarding the Gainesville Regional Utilities fuel adjustment charge that many unincorporated county residents currently pay.
GRU's fuel adjustment charge has been a subject of local debate for months. For about three years, GRU has built up about $23 million in a "levelization" fund through electric customer fuel charges. It plans to use that money to limit customers' rate hikes after the 100-megawatt biomass plant comes online later this year.
To create the levelization fund, the city-run utility held the line on its rates. As a result, it collected about 20 percent above actual fuel costs when, in recent years, other utilities have decreased their rates due to the lowering of natural gas prices.
Commissioner Susan Baird suggested the County Commission contact the city to request GRU and the City Commission consider reducing the fuel adjustment charge since it has already collected $23 million in a time of declining fuel prices.
She said the County Commission has a responsibility to unincorporated county residents who are GRU customers to see if an easing of the adjustment charge is possible. She also pointed out that these unincorporated county customers can't vote in Gainesville city elections and thus don't have a say in selecting the officials who manage the utility.
Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV said he understood Baird's point but questioned whether the county should get involved in how the Gainesville City Commission, which is comprised of elected officials, manages GRU.
Chestnut cautioned against getting into the habit of telling other local governments how to do things and vice versa.
"I just don't want to open that kind of door," he said.
Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson expressed similar concern with getting involved in city business.
"I don't support doing this because I think it's just another way that we're sticking our thumb in the eye of another local government," he said.
Baird countered that she would be happy to receive input from the city or other entities on things the County Commission is doing. "Good ideas come from everywhere," she said.
Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said he didn't see any harm in asking for more information on the situation, considering the County Commission is a voice for unincorporated residents.
Chestnut suggested inviting city and GRU staff to meet with the County Commission and answer commissioners' questions, which it may decide to formally request at next week's meeting.
City Attorney Nicolle Shalley issued a legal memo in early March that stated the city isn't precluded from taking actions such as a credit or refund for GRU customers related to the fuel adjustment charge. However, she wrote that such actions could lower customers' bills in the short-term but could necessitate an increase in their base rates later.
Commissioner Mike Byerly was absent from Tuesday's meeting.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.