The Gainesville City Commission voted to continue funding its legal action against the state of Florida with another $250,000 on Thursday.
The City Commission aims to stop the state’s implementation of House Bill 1645, passed in May, that will place a governor-appointed board to manage Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) in October. Gov. Ron DeSantis approved the bill in June.
The City Commission approved the use of an initial quarter of a million dollars in June and hired the national law firm Akerman LLP to represent Gainesville. Since then, those funds have been used to file a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, motion for temporary relief and a motion for full and final summary judgment, spending an estimated $300,000 through the end of August.
Thursday’s motion brought Gainesville legal funding to half a million dollars and will cover costs through the oral arguments scheduled for this Friday, less than two weeks before the state’s authority board is slated to start.
City Attorney Daniel Nee said he expects another bill of around $70,000 to $80,000 for September. He added that getting through the end of September has been the goal so far.
Nee said the state has agreed with Gainesville on the facts of the case, allowing the legal teams to quickly get to the legal arguments without an expensive discovery phase.
"We will come to you with whatever that judgment is, and then the non-prevailing party will decide if an appeal is necessary or not,” Nee told the commission.
He added that the non-prevailing party might also wait to see what comes from the next legislative session.
The City Commission decided to use GRU reserve funds for the initial $250,000, but the commission pulled from the general government fund balance for the second batch.
Despite tight financials this year, City Manager Cynthia Curry said the 2023 fund balance could cover the cost until the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
According to Gainesville’s lawsuit, HB 1645 doesn’t and can’t explain how a city department can be taken away from the city government.
"In other words, the State of Florida has seized a department within a Florida City because the State disagrees with the elected officials and the electorate of that City on how that particular department should be run,” the lawsuit reads.
Commissioner Casey Willits said the lawsuit touches on large constitutional issues, and Mayor Harvey Ward noted that some of the small issues are just as important. He said the bill leaves the city and GRU, used to working as the same organization, in the dark on how to operate.
Ward said the transition isn’t clear in the bill and not as simple as lawmakers have framed it.
Gainesville residents also formed the nonprofit Gainesville Residents United and sued the state of Florida in federal court over the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority. The state has filed a dismissal in that case on procedural grounds.