By Bradley Osburn
About 100 citizens and business owners attended the Your Energy Bill: A Conversation with the Chamber event at the Springhill Missionary Baptist Church on Wednesday night. The event was billed as a chance for Gainesville Regional Utilities customers to raise concerns and discuss solutions with Mayor Ed Braddy and members of the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce.
GRU has come under fire in the past year for its high rates, which the Florida Municipal Electric Association places at the upper end of Florida-based utilities. GRU ties the rate hikes to an economic downturn, energy and solar power rebates and overall increases in operating costs.
The roundtable began with statements from State Representative Keith Perry, Chamber Board of Directors Chair Mitch Glaeser, Alachua County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson and Braddy.
“We’re not able to recruit businesses — we’re losing them — and it puts us at a tremendous disadvantage,” Perry said, in reference to rates that he feels aren’t competitive enough to grow the Gainesville business community.
Pinkoson called attention to the energy surcharge for customers who live in unincorporated areas not annexed into the city limits. He said that while they are legal, they’re unfair to those residents. Braddy likened GRU in recent years to a quarterback who’s always in the news, while he believes that it should go back to being a lineman who supports the community.
The tone of the meeting was hopeful, but negative toward GRU and its policies. GRU itself did not counter any arguments during the meeting. Breakout groups came back with ideas like placing the utility on a budget diet, privatizing it or calling for the city to break its contract with the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center biomass plant.
A crowd favorite idea was for more transparency from GRU in every aspect, from itemized bills to budget breakdowns on its website. Ideas from the community were then passed on to the Chamber and the Energy Research Group that it has put together.
“The bottom line,” Braddy said, “is the affordability of the utility to customers. We need to get a majority of the commissioners on board and we need to recognize we are in a crisis situation.”
“We need to make sure we don’t double down on these bad judgments.”
Attorney Nathan Skop said that GRU has failed to mitigate risk to protect its customers, which he tied to the construction of the biomass plant and his concern that the city won’t be able to sell energy off to other buyers while GRU is contractually obligated to pay for its service.
“Well-managed utilities are risk averse,” he said, “and no utility should gamble or speculate with ratepayer money. They rolled the dice and guessed wrong.”
Retiree Ernesto Martinez was pleased to see the community “taking a realistic approach to what we’re facing.”
“We need to put our hats aside to come together and face what’s coming,” he said. “But I have faith that we can come together to make Gainesville great, because we’ve done it before.”
The Business Report has previously covered the construction and concerns over the biomass plant, and you can read those articles here: