Adding dynamite to an explosive situation with GRU


Published: Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 at 7:51 p.m.

I've never been crazy about the city of Gainesville's official motto: "Every path starts with passion."

It's a bit too new age for me. And it doesn't really send the sort of message that sorely needs to be heard these days down at city hall.

No, the way things have been going around here, they ought to emblazon every piece of city stationary with this oldie-goldie:

"Discretion is the better part of valor."

I'm just saying, we're running a serious discretion deficit downtown.

Take Gainesville Regional Utilities for instance.

I can't remember a time when our city-owned public utility has been the focus of so much bitter criticism and prolonged controversy.

From the unrelenting anti-biomass peanut gallery to GRU's much-disparaged fuel surcharge (to help suppress the high electric rates biomass is bringing) to second guessing over GRU's feed-in tariff solar program, it's clear there's been an anti-GRU backlash building for some time now.

And it isn't difficult to deduce that backlash was in play when voters handily elected a Republican mayor in a town where the politics are usually bottled up tight by the Democratic Executive Committee.

I dunno, but if I were on the City Commission, I'd be looking for ways to defuse that ticking time bomb. Especially given the fact that the Chamber of Commerce currently has GRU operations under a microscope, and knowing that there may be a move in the next legislative session to change the way GRU is governed.

Instead, it appears as though the powers that be have decided to add more TNT to an already explosive mix.

This week we learned that City Manager Russ Blackburn's proposed fiscal year budget includes a $2.3 million hike in the general government transfer from GRU. That means city officials will be helping themselves to more than $38 million of GRU "profits" and this at a time when utility revenue is trending down, not up.

Oh well, we're told, this is just the last of an already planned four-year escalation of the transfer. Maybe next year we can talk about changing the transfer formula.

Wait 'till next year. Sounds like what we used to say back when the Gators were always losing. That's called wishful thinking.

I understand what Blackburn's up against. City government is essentially a union shop, and it takes a lot of money to keep feeding the half dozen or so organized labor contracts that Blackburn seems to be constantly negotiating.

And although Gainesville's property taxes are pretty low (thanks of course to the magic utility transfer) nobody wants to talk about a millage hike.

Why tax actual city voters when so many unincorporated area GRU customers are sitting out there like cash cows for the milking?

But the timing is lousy. This constant escalation of the utility transfer makes it look more like a slush fund than a stable revenue source.

Last year The Sun reported that the share of revenue being siphoned out of GRU is far out of proportion with what Gainesville's peer cities collect. And jacking up the transfer yet again — with all the criticism and controversy surrounding GRU — isn't just bad politics, it's bad policy.

At the very least commissioners ought to be holding the line on the transfer; especially with the biomass plant coming on line, with utility rates creeping up, with the chamber study underway ... and before somebody in the Legislature decides that the City Commission can't be trusted to run the people's utility.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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