Perry's GRU bill meets resistance


Published: Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 7:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 7:19 p.m.

State Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, met resistance from the City Commission over potential legislation that would require a referendum on whether a separate, independent government authority should take over operations of Gainesville Regional Utilities.

"Gainesville Regional Utilities is owned by Gainesville, and I feel right now somebody is trying to take our property," Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls said.

Perry has drafted but not yet filed a bill that would require a referendum of all GRU electric customers to determine if the city should transfer the operation of its electric, gas, water and sewer utilities to a newly created government authority with a separate board that represents county and city ratepayers.

The two-page draft of the bill does not specify the method for appointing that board. Perry pointed to the Gainesville Regional Airport Authority as the general model for his plan. That authority has a nine-member board with five appointed by the City Commission, three appointed by the governor and one by the County Commission.

Perry said he's mulling legislation after constituent complaints about electric rates and about the biomass plant, most recently over noise and dust. He told the City Commission he planned to hold off on filing a bill to give them time to address the issue of utility governance.

Perry said he favors an independent board because some 30 percent of GRU customers live outside the city limits and cannot vote for the commissioners who set rates and make other utility decisions. He also wants a board whose members have utility expertise.

Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said the city owns the utility and its residents' investments built it to what it is today. If there was a move to a separate utility authority, the city should receive compensation, he said.

Perry countered that customers in unincorporated county had also had their monies go toward building up the utility.

Hawkins suggested that Perry could give GRU customers currently in unincorporated county a voice in city government by pursuing a law to expand the city limits to cover the entire GRU service area.

"I have a real trouble about forcing people into annexation," said Perry, himself a GRU electric and water customer who lives just outside the city limits.

Commissioner Randy Wells said he felt a state mandate for a referendum on utility governance was "not appropriate" and a state law to require a referendum on annexation for the service area was the "appropriate" route.

Commissioner Susan Bottcher said there are complaints and concerns from GRU customers outside the city limits that they have no say in utility governance. She said annexation gives them a chance to have a say, although recent referendums on annexation have been soundly defeated.

Annexation would eliminate GRU customer surcharges. But it would also bring higher combined property tax rates — with the city general fund replacing the county municipal services taxing units — a fire assessment and a stormwater fee.

Commissioner Todd Chase and Mayor Ed Braddy were more receptive to Perry's proposal.

Chase said he favored bringing in a board with utility expertise. Braddy said he felt it was "unconscionable" that 30 percent of the customers had no say in deciding who is in charge of making utility decisions.

Several critics of the biomass contract spoke in favor of a change in governance. County Commissioner Susan Baird said the increase in the transfer of GRU revenues to the city's general fund as electric rates also have risen this year and the high electric rates businesses pay are some reasons she supports a change.

In an interview, Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter said Perry's current plan raises complications. The draft bill calls for a referendum at the next general election. But she said the list of registered voters and GRU customers will not be the same. Some utility customers will likely be out-of-county residents, non-citizens who are not registered voters or felons who have not had their voting rights restored.

For those reasons, she said the referendum Perry seeks has to be a stand-alone election.

"It's complicated, but it doesn't mean it can't happen," Perry said.

In the end Thursday, the City Commission unanimously voted to refer the issue of GRU governance to its Audit, Legislative & Finance Committee, a two-person panel that consists of Braddy and Wells.

Later in the meeting, city commissioners also approved a proposal Commissioner Lauren Poe first floated several months ago that creates a position for a county commissioner on the City Commission's Regional Utilities Committee. Comprised of three city commissioners — currently Braddy, Chase and Poe — that committee makes recommendations on GRU issues to the full City Commission.

While Perry did not specify what the City Commission would have to do to keep him from filing the bill, he said adding a county commissioner to the utilities committee was not enough because of the "very limited capacity of authority that person would have."

"Incremental steps may not be enough to accomplish what needs to be accomplished," Perry said.

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