At forum, candidates debate GRU, tax incentives
Published: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 10:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 10:35 p.m.
Gainesville Regional Utilities, tax incentives for developers, and November’s potential transportation tax referendum were among the issues covered at the League of Women Voters City Commission candidate forum Tuesday evening.
This was the final candidate forum before early voting begins Monday in an election cycle with three of the seven seats on the City Commission on the ballot.
In the District 2 race, candidates Cheri Brodeur and Sheryl Eddie and incumbent Todd Chase were asked what they believed the ramifications to the city would be in terms of credit ratings and ability to enter future contracts if the city were to back out of its biomass contract.
“I don’t see us getting out of that contract,” Brodeur said. “If we do, it is going to be a miracle.”
On the campaign trail, Brodeur has said high electric rates associated with the contract are an obstacle for future economic development in Gainesville and trying to bring rates down would be a priority for her in office.
Eddie said the biomass plant is in operation and the city needs to deal with it and continue efforts to try to market power.
Chase, who has been outspoken in his concerns about the financial and rate impact of the biomass contract, said “to back out of the contract unequivocally would cause us a lot of problems” and that was not a course of action he ever suggested.
Each candidate spoke in support of the transportation tax, primarily to cover roads but also transit and pedestrian and bike facilities. Chase said he supported the “concept” but would need to see the commission majority’s project list before he makes a final decision. He has opposed putting bus rapid transit on the list and said his focus was not on the needs of 2050 but 2015.
Asked what she would bring as a commissioner, Brodeur noted her experience in conflict resolution as a faculty member at the University of Florida. She said she felt she could bring together differing viewpoints to find common ground.
Chase said he felt he has been “fair, diligent and decisive” and avoided the “bloodsport” of politics. He recalled friends dubbing him “Mr. Uno” during his first two years in office because he was often casting the dissenting vote in a 6-1 decision.
Now, Chase said he felt issues he focused on had gained traction with the majority. He pointed to the decision to suspend the solar feed-in tariff this year to ease upward pressure on electric rates, something he had pushed for unsuccessfully in the past.
Eddie said she is a “high energy” person who would look for compromise instead of having an “us against them, bikes against cars” mentality.
“I think I bring a little bit of a softer touch by being a woman,” she said.
Eddie also said women were underrepresented on the City Commission. Currently, five of the seven members are men.
In the District 3 race, candidate Craig Carter reiterated his campaign message that decisions of current and past commissioners were making Gainesville less affordable for families and businesses. He specifically pointed to the biomass contract approved back in 2009. He argued that the commission majority doesn’t care “how high rates go.”
Bottcher said high electric rates are a significant issue facing the city. She maintained commissioners are working to address the issue through moves such as a reduction in the general fund transfer that could lead to general government cuts such as hiring freezes or suspending pay increases.
Both candidates said they oppose the current draft of potential state legislation for a proxy vote of GRU account holders to move to a new appointed utility board, including some members put in place by the governor.
Still, Carter said he feels the legislation is a response to City Commission decisions involving the utility and the biomass contract. He said his preference would be to keep the utility under the City Commission but that there would have to be “drastic” changes on the commission for that to happen.
Bottcher, an outspoken critic of the bill that state Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, is considering, called the draft “pretty horrible” in its current form. She has opposed giving the governor the authority to appoint some members to a local utility board and the proxy vote, which would give businesses with multiple accounts a vote for each account and not grant a vote to city voters who do not have their household account in their name.
She said she is open to considering changes to governance, but they should go through the commission and the city’s voters.
Asked about the city’s 20-year, $55 million plan to upgrade its parks, recreational and cultural facilities, Bottcher said she supported it, but the question is funding. She said the commission’s Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Public Works Committee is now discussing whether to recommend a property tax referendum to generate funding.
Carter balked at the cost of the plan and the prospect of an additional tax, questioning if the intent is to “drive everybody out of town.”
“It would be nice to have everything but at some point you can’t have everything,” Carter said.
At-large candidate Annie Orlando said she would support a short-term, five-year sales tax to generate money primarily for roads but also for transit, bikes and other modes of transportation. That is a departure from a Monday night forum, when Orlando said gas tax revenues, not a sales tax, should fund road needs.
The other four at-large candidates also spoke in support of the tax.
On the issue of the city program to offer incentives for development that is “transformational” to a community, candidate Helen Warren said any rebate above the current maximum -- 80 percent of the property tax revenues that a project generates for the Community Redevelopment Agency -- is a “reach.” Currently, the University Corners’ developers are seeking a 90 percent rebate for 20 years.
Asked about the tax incentives for development, candidate Donald Shepherd said he supports the local construction industry but is more focused on trying to lower taxes.
The candidates spoke against the current draft of the state bill on a vote to potentially change GRU governance. Warren described it as “taking away” the utility from Gainesville. Candidate Mark Venzke said he does support a move to a paid utility board with expertise and an investigation of all decisions made in the approval and implementation of the biomass contract.
Orlando also criticized City Commission decisions involving the contract. Of the seven commissioners now in office, two -- Lauren Poe and Thomas Hawkins -- were in office when the contract was approved in 2009. Hawkins is hitting term limits in the at-large seat up in March’s election.
On the issue of the contract terms, Candidate Barbara Ann Ruth said well-meannig people sometimes make mistakes and “you learn and you move on.”
Warren said the city may look back one day and be proud of the decision to go with renewable energy to reduce its carbon footprint.
At the forum, Ruth announced she was going to stop campaigning.
“This is the end of my campaign,” she said. “I know I don’t have the support or the backing.”
As a candidate who went through the qualifying process, her name will still appear on the ballot and votes cast for her will count.