Alachua County and the city of Gainesville decided to extend negotiations until the end of the year for the $8 million sale of Gainesville Regional Utilities’ (GRU) trunked radio system.
The city and county commissions originally approved the sale in February and March after Alachua County gave a deadline last year. If Gainesville didn’t sell the system, the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) said they would build their own.
Negotiations have continued since the spring, but county and GRU staff said a few points remain unresolved.
The Gainesville City Commission approved the extension without comment on Thursday.
At a regular meeting on Tuesday, the BOCC returned to the idea of building its own system, but Assistant County Manager Tommy Crosby said he doesn’t endorse that plan yet.
“I’m not ready operationally to recommend to the manager or this board to spend an extra $8 million for the same system,” Crosby said.
GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham told the BOCC that he’s confident the staff for both governments can settle the final issues by the end of the year. The three-month extension also gives both governments the opportunity to see what happens once Gov. Ron DeSantis appoints the new authority scheduled to start controlling GRU in October.
DeSantis appointed three of the five authority members on Tuesday and the authority is set to assume operation control of GRU on Sunday, Oct. 1.
The city of Gainesville is also suing to stop HB 1645 and the authority, naming DeSantis, state Attorney General Ashley Moody and Secretary of State Cord Byrd as defendants.
Another provision within the bill presents a direct problem for the trunked radio sale. The bill gives the GRU Authority control of all assets that the utility had on Jan. 1, 2023. State Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, said the provision was designed to prevent a last-minute shuffle of assets from GRU to the general government side of the city.
When asked by Mainstreet in the spring, Clemons said the sale of the radio system would likely get caught in that provision, potentially nullifying the deal between the city and county.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Chair Anna Prizzia said extending the memorandum of understanding the best action given the uncertainty in the situation. She said building a county system, besides costing more, would leave GRU with a stranded, unusable asset—a burden for taxpayers that the county also represents.
“I feel like a lot of the issues that are outlined here are going to get more clarity and more resolution as we move into October, November and we’ll be able to make better decisions and give clearer direction,” Prizzia said.
Commissioners Ken Cornell and Chuck Chestnut said they were unsure if the deal would end up signed and questioned if the county should look at the build option.
“If we have this many issues, even if we work out the legal issues, I feel like we still don’t have a deal,” Cornell said. “I don’t want to continue to put our staff through a negotiation where the goalposts continue to get moved.”
Chestnut reiterated his issues with the current joint path with the city, especially given concerns with the new board. After courts decide whether or not the city can sell the system, he said the county might still end up building its own radio system that costs a lot more than if they had begun building it a year ago.
“The last time this came before us, I think I made a comment that I’d rather we move forward on our own than with the city because it’s been delay, delay, delay, delay after delay, delay. And I got frustrated with it,” Chestnut said.
The motion passed by Alachua County includes a provision to move forward with its own system if a deal doesn’t happen by the end of the year. The BOCC had the same clause in a motion from December 2022 before an agreement was reached in the spring.
The motion also gives county staff the ability to negotiate with the GRU Authority if it gets seated.