The Gainesville City Commission voted to set aside a maximum of $250,000 from Gainesville Regional Utilities’ reserve funds to hire outside legal counsel concerning House Bill 1645.
The commission directed City Attorney Daniel Nee to move forward with outside counsel in March, and Thursday’s vote confirmed financing for the work. The outside counsel, according to the motion, will analyze the bill and prepare for any potential litigation needed.
HB 1645 passed the Legislature in May and arrived on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk last week. The bill would strip operational control of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) away from the City Commission and to an independent authority appointed by DeSantis.
“I do think it’s a shame that we have to expend these funds,” Commissioner Bryan Eastman said. “I don’t feel like we have much of a choice.”
He said the City Commission has citizen support to fight the bill, pointing to a 2018 referendum in which voters defeated the creation of an authority by 60%.
The City Commission has stood against the current bill from the start. However, the Alachua County legislative delegation voted 4-1 to move the bill through the Legislature, where it passed largely along party lines.
Mayor Harvey Ward said the best outcome would be a veto by DeSantis. Former Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a similar local bill during his tenure.
The commission also voted to continue with the sale of GRU’s trunked radio system to Alachua County. City and county staff have worked since March to confirm the details of the agreement, and the terms looked almost identical to those voted on previously.
The county will pay $8 million for the system and its equipment. GRU will pay for the service at a fixed rate over the next five years and hopes to use the sale to pay off debt within the telecommunications department that operates the system.
Both staffs are looking at a closing no later than Sept. 30 with a transition of the system on Oct. 1.
However, HB 1645 factors into the item as well. One clause in the bill would give the new authority, if approved by DeSantis, control of all GRU assets as of the start of 2023, when the radio system remained in GRU hands.
Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, sponsored and presented the bill. He told Mainstreet Daily News in April that the trunked radio sale might get caught into the language of HB 1645.
Alachua County has worked to purchase the system for a couple of years, and in December 2022, the County Commission voted to buy the system or, if negotiations stalled, build its own trunked radio system.
If DeSantis signs HB 1645, the new GRU authority is set to take control Oct. 1.