GRU General Manager Hunzinger resigning


GRU General Manager Robert Hunzinger, shown in this June 24, 2013 file photo, has announced that he is resigning effective Nov. 15.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 1:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 4:48 p.m.

Gainesville Regional Utilities General Manager Bob Hunzinger, who has been the focus of much of the criticism over the city's biomass contract, will resign next month.

Hunzinger announced his resignation, effective Nov. 15, in a letter he co-wrote with Mayor Ed Braddy and released on Wednesday.

Hunzinger began with GRU in March 2008. His sometimes tumultuous 5-year tenure included the utility's expanded involvement in renewable energy through the country's first solar feed-in tariff program and the biomass plant.

He also has been the subject of sometimes-withering criticism for the terms of the 30-year, approximately $3.1 billion biomass contract.

Hunzinger oversaw negotiations of that contract, which the City Commission approved in 2009. Under it, the city will pay in excess of $130 a megawatt-hour for power and will have among the highest residential electric rates in the state and, for some usage levels, the highest commercial rates.

The resignation letter states that Braddy and Hunzinger have been meeting since early September to discuss a transition plan that will include the appointment of an interim general manager.

The letter also stated that the City Commission will be asked today to amend Hunzinger's contract to provide 20 weeks of base pay as part of his severance package. That is actually less than the 26 weeks of pay called for under the current terms of his contract.

After a raise approved earlier this year, Hunzinger has an annual salary of approximately, $222,850. Twenty weeks of base pay would be approximately $85,700.

He also would receive payment from the city equal to 20 weeks of the city's contributions to his health insurance, life insurance and retirement.

The joint letter stated that, with the biomass plant coming online, Hunzinger had “accomplished a major policy initiative” of the City Commission in moving the utility toward renewable energy sources. It further stated that he planned to pursue “alternative” employment opportunities.

Through a GRU spokesperson, Hunzinger declined an interview request on Wednesday. For the time being, Braddy declined to discuss the matter in much detail. He also declined to say whether he had initiated the meetings with Hunzinger on the resignation and a transition plan.

Their letter states that Hunzinger and Braddy both want the commission to approve the contract changes related to his resignation.

“We hope the commission adopts it so we can begin moving forward with new leadership,” Braddy said. “I think it is good for everyone involved.”

Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said he felt Hunzinger was being pressured out for political reasons.

“I am sad to see him go,” Hawkins said. “I think this is a result of the kind of politics we have been experiencing lately. I think intentionally some members of the commission, and some members of the public too, have been trying to destabilize the city organization.

“I think that is bad for the city organization. I think it is bad for the taxpayers, and I think it is bad for the people who receive city services,” he said.

Asked which commissioners he meant, Hawkins declined to provide specifics.

“I'm not going to name names,” he said.

Reacting to news of Hunzinger's letter of resignation, Commissioner Todd Chase said his attention would be on moving GRU forward.

“My main focus and priority now is on the employees of the utility and ensuring a smooth transition,” he said.

Along with some members of the commission, Hunzinger has been the subject of public backlash over the biomass contract.

In 2008, the commission authorized Hunzinger to oversee negotiations on the contract. At that time, commissioners were contemplating a 20-year agreement for a plant with a $300 million price tag and wanted a condition where the city, after paying the plant owner millions of dollars, could back out of the contract before construction started.

The contract the commission eventually approved in 2009, which remained partially redacted until 2011, was a 30-year agreement for a plant with a price tag of about $500 million. It contained no backout clause.

During public comment at commission meetings, Hunzinger also faced criticism over the use of the fuel charge on current electric customers to build up a fund in excess of $20 million intended to cushion the rate impacts of the biomass plant.

There was no public discussion or commission vote on the use of the charge to build up that fund until budget meetings in summer 2012.

That led to allegations that the city ordinance governing the fuel adjustment charge had been violated and, eventually, a legal opinion from the city attorney recommending that the ordinance be updated.

With the city and the biomass plant owner engaged in an arbitration battle in August, Hunzinger, in response to a question from Commissioner Todd Chase, said he had not signed any proposed settlement agreement that included contract concessions sought by the biomass plant owner.

But at the beginning of the commission's next meeting, Hunzinger said he needed to offer a "clarification and correction" to those comments. He said he had indeed signed a proposed settlement agreement and had previously misspoken. The City Commission had the final authority to accept or reject a settlement and voted to reject an agreement.

Commissioner Lauren Poe said the City Commission sets utility policy and staff implements it. For that reason, he said he felt any criticism should have been focused on the commission, not staff.

“I can certainly say week in, week out when he received that kind of vitriolic criticism, it must wear on a person,” Poe said.

The requested changes to Hunzinger's contract go to the commission at the same meeting as its last scheduled discussion on whether to make an offer to purchase the biomass plant.

When the commission approved the plant, GRU staff said private ownership would protect the city from construction risk and hundreds of millions in debt.

Now that the plant is built, staff have shifted their position to say city ownership could bring savings in operating costs and other areas when compared with the 30-year contract.

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