Frustrated residents wanting to know more about Gainesville Regional Utilities’ nearly billion-dollar buyout of a local biomass plant were able to ask public officials questions at a forum Tuesday evening.
City-owned GRU’s controversial possible purchase of Gainesville Renewable Energy Center was discussed in Pugh Hall’s Mackaye Auditorium at 6 p.m. Tuesday, hosted by the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, WUFT News and the Gainesville Sun.
About 60 residents crowded the auditorium, eager to know why the city initially entered a 30-year $2.1 billion contract with GREC and how it plans to exit the contract.
The forum’s panel, which was moderated by the Sun’s opinions editor Nathan Crabbe, consisted of GRU’s general manager, Ed Bielarski; the Utility Advisory Board’s chair, Darin Cook; and at-large Gainesville City Commissioner Harvey Budd.
Bielarski told the audience that if GREC accepts it, he’s in favor of taking the $750 million buyout.
“It unleashes us from the shackles that we’re now under for having to absorb the $70-$75 million a year,” he said, referring to the annual sum GRU must pay GREC for the next 27 years under the current contract.
Cook and Budd disagreed with Bielarski, both saying they want to hold off on the $750 million buyout figure. Instead, they advocated for pursuing arbitration, a process by which a third party resolves a contract dispute between two parties.
Cook, whose job as the UAB chair is to give advice to the City Commission regarding utility decisions, said GREC hasn’t undergone certain maintenance inspections during negotiations — and hasn’t explained why in any communications via email.
“There’s probably something in there they don’t want to be seen,” Cook said. “I’d love to see those emails, but they haven’t provided them.”
Budd agreed with Cook, adding that there is “smoke and fire” surrounding the deal — something that hasn’t yet been uncovered by the city. Budd also commented on GREC President Jim Gordon’s character.
“We have an unwilling seller who’s a bit of a creep, in my opinion,” Budd said.
Cook agreed, to some extent.
“Yes, I think he’s a creep, but I also think he’s a very smart man.” Cook said.
The three panelists also discussed how utility rates for Gainesville residents would change if GRU should acquire the GREC plant. On its “Why Buy GREC” website, GRU said electric rates could drop by about 8 to 10 percent.
However, at the forum, Bielarski said some residents may reap savings even less than 8 percent.
“Some county residents (could) see as low as six,” he said, adding that it would depend on where they live.
Cook said he thinks any savings residents see in their bill would likely dissolve over the next five years anyway because of inflation.
Jon Reiskind, a former UF biology professor, said he’s glad the panelists kept the conversation on the here and now.
“Hindsight is cheap,” the 77-year-old said. “A lot of people are still very angry about the decision that was made in 2009 — and they have every right to be angry — but that time sucks, too.”
Reiskind, who’s lived in Gainesville for 50 years, said it wasn’t unreasonable for the city to think the contract was profitable when they began the process in 2009.
Since then, U.S. investment in fracking made the price of natural gas plummet, he said. He said no one eight years ago could have predicted that the price would drop and thus make GREC’s energy less valuable to the city.
“That caught everybody off guard,” he said.
Gainesville resident Charounson Saintilus was among the four young people in the audience Tuesday night and was the only one to stay for the meeting’s duration.
Saintilus, 24, said he tries to attend as many City Commission and UAB meetings as he can, and he feels the city should do more to get the younger generation engaged.
“Whether or not we’re going to accept it, this is going to affect our utility bill perhaps a year from now,” he said. “I think folks have to come out, they have to listen, and they have to voice their opinions.”