City readies lobbyists, counsel against GRU bill 

City Attorney Daniel Nee speaks
Gainesville City Attorney Daniel Nee will discuss with the Gainesville City Commission about obtaining an addition $250,000 to continue its legal action against the state of Florida.
Photo by Seth Johnson

The Gainesville City Commission prepared itself for the rest of the Florida legislative session on Thursday.  

Commissioners voted unanimously to call on its Tallahassee lobbyists and prepare to hire outside legal counsel to defeat or alter legislation that could hand over control of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) to a five-member board appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.  

“It’s a radical consolidation of power for the state level as opposed to local,” Commissioner Casey Willits said at the meeting. “I think it’s hard to argue against that.” 

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State Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, and the Alachua County legislative delegation approved moving forward with the local bill last week in a 4-1 vote in Tallahassee. Clemons said he and other legislators will wordsmith the bill from now until April 10—the first day he can introduce the bill—to come up with an exact design.  

Until then, Mayor Harvey Ward said the city should recommend amendments to help direct the bill, like allowing the commission to nominate a member of the board or requiring a referendum. But commissioners noted the difficulty of drafting amendments when the exact text of the final bill remains unknown.  

“I don’t believe anybody is trying to harm the people of Gainesville or the utility or the city as organizations, but I also don’t believe all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed in this draft bill,” Ward said. “I am certain that they are not.” 

Ward said the draft bill that the legislators voted on leaves big questions unanswered about how the board would operate GRU. He said the city charter, and bond-rating agencies, view the city of Gainesville and GRU as one entity.  

Like the board that oversees the airport, Ward said a potential GRU board would need its powers and its relationship with the city commission defined.  

Commissioners also rebutted the idea posed by Clemons and other legislators that GRU’s financial situation merits a state takeover.  

Ward said GRU debt stood at $1.9 billion in 2015 and has lowered by $233 million since then. The debt fell each year from 2015 to 2018 before bouncing back up. Since then, GRU has added debt in three of the five years.  

Commissioner Bryan Eastman used Jacksonville Electric Authority’s (JEA) $2 billion in debt and Orlando Utilities Commission’s (OUC) $1.6 billion in debt to show that GRU’s numbers remain close to peers.  

Commissioners Casey Willits (left) and Ed Book at Thursday’s meeting.

Eastman said Gainesville residents voted to maintain a direct line of control to GRU’s governing body in 2018 by voting down a more modest proposal than what Clemons put forward last week. Other commissioners said any board approved by the Legislature should include at least one or two city nominated members—if not all of them, according to Commissioner Ed Book.  

Currently, 31% of GRU’s electric customers live outside of city limits. For other services, the number ranges between 30% and 40%. Clemons and legislators said those customers have no representation concerning their utility rates, and since the city uses GRU income to supplement its budget, the county residents are forced to supplement city services.  

Clemons called the issue a conflict of interest. For years, he said the city commission has voted to force more money from GRU customers, including those outside the city, to pay for expanded city services instead of raising taxes on just Gainesville citizens.  

In Tallahassee last week, state Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said an independent board might not save GRU financially, but the board would constitute better governance in the decades to come if current finances are settled.  

On Thursday, Ward said no one mentioned bankruptcy in connection with GRU until legislators began weighing in on the issue.  

The commission also voted for the city manager and general manager to continue working to reduce the general fund transfer and other recommendations by the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which directed the city to return with a fiscal plan by Oct. 1. City staff will present a proposed fund transfer and budget in April. 

Ward said the city could address the bill differently if it had been filed prior to the legislative session and mentioned in the Alachua County delegation meeting like most local bills.  

“We would handle [the bill] differently if we were not also, at the same time, juggling other questions and recommendations from that same Legislature,” Ward said, referencing the audit committee. 

For now, the city will not hire additional help. Gainesville already holds Tallahassee lobbyists on retainer, and City Attorney Daniel Nee said he would work with GRU to prepare and reach out to other firms. If a bill passes the Legislature that the city finds damaging or unconstitutional, Nee said, the city can then respond quickly with outside counsel.  

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut made the motions. She said the bill represents a battle, and the city may need someone to fight it.  

“There are severe constitutional defects in this bill,” Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said at the meeting. “We cannot sit back, let it happen and not take any actions.”

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Jeff Gehmann

Absolutely absurd comparisons of debt to JEA and OUC. JEA serves 1 million with 500k accounts and OUC 270k accounts. 10 times larger, 4 times larger yet GRU yet have similar debt levels. Pathetic! So GRU worked off $268 million in debt since 2015, 8 years, even with super low interest rates. Horrible! Now they have more variable debt than before and rates have moved up. CoG and GRU in deep do-do, yet will probably spend/waste another $500k fighting this. Expel city leadership NOW! Not Oct 1, we can’t wait that long! Fire them all ASAP!

Candra Swinson

I don’t want Tallahassee politicians telling us in Gainesville how to run our own business, do you? No thanks

Edward Bielarski

They won’t. They will install a board that can. it’s that simple.

Candra Swinson

And who will be on the board – all 5 to be appointed by the Governor?? Just like he took over New College, now he wants to take over GRU.

Ed Bielarski

I don’t believe any appointees of the governor would siphon almost $100 million more out of the utility than what they made. There’s been real fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the commission. You can’t overlook it and point to a future governor appointment as though it would be worse. It’s that kind of attitude that has put GRU and the city in this kind of place.


The Alachua County Delegation will submit a list of nominees for the Governor to chose from. He doesn’t get to just pick whoever he wishes.


Mayor and Commissioner’s, please don’t waste any more money. So sad you cannot accept the fact that you Broke GRU . The numbers showing insolvency of GRU by the City Commission clearly show a unsustainable debt burden. Just accept you failures and move out of the way, so a remedy can begin.


Instead of showing that they are serious about addressing the findings of the JLAC report, the City Commission wants to waste more money on lawyers and lobbyists, so they can continue to muddy the water with more lies. Eastman got away with his spin when he could hide behind his PACs. I doubt his straw-man arguments will work with the JLAC Committee or our State Representatives. Especially, since half of GRU’s debt come from buying a used wood burner in order to bail out his friends who got us into the bad deal to begin with.

Last edited 1 year ago by Annie