Candidates Ed Bielarski and Harvey Ward sparred in a Wednesday debate in the leadup to the Nov. 8 elections, hitting topics like Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), development and UF.
Both mayoral candidates will debate again next week at UF’s Levin College of Law.
At Wednesday’s debate, moderated by WCJB, Ward told citizens to go back and read the commission’s minutes to see how he’s voted concerning GRU rates over the past six years instead of listening to Bielarski.
“A lot of what he says about this stuff is just not true, but you can look it up,” Ward said.
In the first topic of the night, Ward said he’s voted four of six times against annual increases in electricity rates while Bielarski, former general manager of GRU, brought the commission budgets that included higher rates.
Ward also highlighted that the general fund transfer from GRU to the general government coffers has lowered while he’s been in office. The commission voted in 2021 on a $2 million annual reduction for multiple years on end. Those reductions will drop the fund transfer from $38 million to $26 million by 2027.
Meanwhile, Bielarski said the city commission forces GRU to raise rates by refusing for years to drop the general fund transfer. He said that even at the current $34 million, the general government receives $14 million more per year than GRU itself earns.
Over the past four years, GRU has borrowed $68 million from Wall Street businesses, Bielarski said, while sending the general government side more than $140 million. He also said the city could use its $35 million in reserve from the rate stabilization fund to help customers.
When asked about cutting city expenses, Bielarski said that starts will the city’s thirst for GRU money.
“[Ward] doesn’t talk about reducing expenses because he doesn’t want to reduce any expenses,” Bielarski said.
Ward said people need to realize that cutting expenses means less funds for the police and fire departments, shuttering parks, not having a $15 wage minimum and not having other services the citizens have said ought to be available.
“Yes, all these things do cost money,” Ward said. “We should be looking to cut costs by looking by making sure that our operations, both in general government and at the utility, are as lean and as efficient as they can possibly be.”
On the development topic, both candidates said they would support repealing the ordinances passed last week that eliminated single-family zoning.
Ward said that Gainesville, as a college town, will change. But he said shifting higher densities of UF students to the streets abutting the university makes sense and opens up other areas.
“The challenge is to make sure we hold onto significant buildings, significant neighborhoods—things that matter—and not worry too much about things that were maybe not great buildings in the first place,” Ward said.
Bielarski said current development has gone wild and needs to be kept under wraps in order to preserve the historic nature of communities. He said a part of that is increasing the city’s relationship with UF.
“It’s going to come,” Bielarski said. “We’re going to see progress, but we have to control that progress.”
Also, on the UF beat, Ward called the appointment of Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse as the sole finalist to be UF’s next president a “fairly brazen partisan meddling.” Ward said Sasse needs to be different as UF’s president than his voting record indicates in order to overcome some of the partisan state leadership.
Watch the full debate online.