A board hand-picked by Gov. Ron DeSantis will take control of Gainesville Regional Utilities within the next few months.
House Bill 1645, commonly known as the GRU Bill, went into effect July 1. The law creates the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority — a board consisting of five appointees to govern over GRU — and removes the GRU general manager.
GRU was founded in 1912 and is the state's fifth-largest municipality utility system, providing water, electricity and natural gas to the City of Gainesville.
The bill passed the Florida House of Representatives 81 to 33 April 27 and the Senate 30 to 9 May 4.
HB 1645 marks Rep. Chuck Clemons’ second time attempting to create a GRU authority. He introduced a similar bill, HB 759, in 2017 that required a referendum to pass. Residents voted against it in November 2018.
David Cullen, a 73-year-old lobbyist representing Sierra Club, an environmental organization, said Gainesville residents wouldn’t have supported the legislation if put to a vote.
“That's why this bill didn't include that requirement for the referendum,” Cullen said. “There's no way it would have passed a referendum in Gainesville.”
The decision was politically motivated to undermine the efforts of the Democrat-majority local government in Gainesville given the Florida legislature's Republican supermajority, Cullen said.
“The surface area [of Gainesville] is largely blue, and the governor and his people are going to be decidedly red,” he said. “We are concerned that the policies that will be pursued by this new board will not be environmentally friendly; they will not be reflective of the desires of the people of Gainesville.”
The board will govern GRU independently of the city commission and the city charter officers and will include at least one member outside of Gainesville to serve on the board for four-year terms.
The board may “establish and amend the rates, fees, assessments, charges, rules, regulations and policies governing the sale and use of services provided through the utilities,” according to a legislative staff analysis report.
District 4 City Commissioner Bryan Eastman believed the rejection of HB 759 in the 2018 referendum settled the debate. He spoke out against the new bill when it was introduced in April.
Since the introduction of HB 1645, the city commission has tried to reach Clemons to reach a middle ground and alleviate concerns, said Eastman.
City staff and outside counsel have worked with the commission to understand the bill’s ramifications.
The board may also buy real estate and construct projects to ensure the utility company is appropriately maintained and remains economically healthy.
The law also limits transfers from the utility fund to Gainesville, with the net revenue minus the company's expenses determining the transfer limit. The law will dedicate any surplus funds from the transfer to help pay GRU’s debt.
For Eastman, the bill has constitutional issues and should be disputed moving forward,
“This is an unprecedented attack on our local community. This is an assault on our democracy, and it will likely lead to raises and people's GRU rates as it already has with a $3 million increase in payments that we have to make on our interest, and that's probably just the beginning,” Eastman said.
Moreover, GRU has been paying down its debts, Eastman said.
“We're just getting to a point now where we can start moving into our averages and bringing those rates down, which is why it's a real shame that it is that right at this moment that the state is coming in and taking over our utility,” he said.
GRU’s debt is around 1.2 Billion, according to an Auditor's General report.
Some county residents hope the change may alleviate rising utility costs.
Angela Casteel, a 47-year-old Alachua resident and GRU customer, said the bill could be a positive change for GRU customers.
“I certainly would love to see the board consider using the customers for a better GRU as a platform to get input on what needs to be fixed,” she said.
Having outside input could help GRU in the decision-making process, Casteel added.
Other representatives hope to get logistical answers about cooperating with the authority as soon as possible. The time to debate the decision passed, said Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward. Now, Ward’s “working to develop a better understanding of the way this new board will operate.”
Gov. DeSantis will elect the board by Oct. 1.
Contact Gabriel Velasquez Neira at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gvelasquezn.
Gabriel Velasquez Neira is a second-year Journalism major, and the Audio Editor and Metro GA Reporter. In his free time, he enjoys sleeping, taking photos and playing guitar.