Proposed bill could change GRU governance 

Gainesville Regional Utilities sign
Suzette Cook

As Gainesville commissioners discuss restraining fiscal budgets, a proposed bill by state Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-District 22, would hand control of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) to a five-person board appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.  

Clemons has yet to file the local bill for the current legislative session. But, he and the four other members of Alachua County’s legislative delegation will hold a Friday meeting on the proposal in Tallahassee. If the majority backs the bill, Clemons can file for consideration and approval.  

Clemons has said GRU is headed for bankruptcy and that an independent board could help resolve the financial “mess” created by various city commissions. 

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Already, city commissioners have spoken against the proposal and three local organizations—the North Central Florida Central Labor Council, Communication Workers of America Local 3170 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1579—plan to protest at City Hall on Thursday.  

Chuck Clemons
Chuck Clemons

Clemons points to GRU’s financial situation as a reason for taking authority away from the city commission. At the end of February, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) directed the city to take action to reduce debt at the utility.  

Mayor Harvey Ward said GRU has high debt but rebuffed the idea that the debt is “really bad.” GRU has $1.7 billion of principal debt as of the JLAC meeting.  

“We’re not in a dangerous situation, according to the rating agencies,” Ward said. “I’m not saying that we don’t have high debt. We’re going to address that. I am dedicated to making sure that happens.”   

The city commission and staff have started taking steps, including a hiring and spending freeze and stopping a scheduled commissioner raise. Gainesville has also changed its budgeting process to ensure it inspects all ways to cut back, according to City Manager Cynthia Curry. A full plan to address GRU debt will go before JLAC by an Oct. 1 deadline.  

However, Rodney Long said the proposed bill represents a continued issue that he faced as a city commissioner and mayor in the 1990s.  

Long said Tallahassee officials looked at removing ownership of the utility back then, resulting in the creation of the general manager position as an independent charter officer. In 2018, Gainesville residents voted against creating a separate authority to rule GRU—a vote that came after a local bill by Clemons and state Sen. Keith Perry, R-District 9. 

“I think the city of Gainesville can, and they will, get their house in order,” Long said. “But I don’t think it calls for government overreach by a bill from one of our delegation members to tell us what to do and to appoint an authority of people by the governor.”     

The bill would step over home rule, according to Long. For its entire history, he said the city operated GRU with an AAA bond rating. He pointed to the biomass plant deal as one decision that has caused problems. But Long said the city can handle the situation and noted GRU’s current bond rating remains in good standing. 

“They’ve never faltered on any of their debt,” Long said. “I mean, this is the first time where you’ve had problems when it comes to real rate structure and debt, and it’s mainly based upon one decision the city of Gainesville made. But, I think the city of Gainesville will soon be on the track to be able to not only handle the debt but also to look at the rate structure to try to give some relief to the ratepayers.” 

Ed Bielarski
Ed Bielarski

Ed Bielarski served as GRU general manager from 2015 to 2022 and he pegged the biomass plant and the city general fund transfers as the cause for the city’s situation.  

He said the city must look at GRU as a business. A business can’t remain viable if it sends more than it earns to another entity, he said, referring to the general fund transfers. Bielarski said he tried to reduce the transfer when he led the utility but with little success.  

In 2021, the city commission decided to reduce the transfer over the course of seven years from $38 million to $24 million annually. In an interview, Bielarski called the decision too little and too late.  

“We could have had $140-$150 million of debt defeasance right now,” Bielarski said. “And instead, we went further behind the eight ball.”   

JLAC’s state auditor, Derek Noonan, told the committee that all utilities generate debt. However, GRU’s level of debt sits higher than other comparable utilities, he said, meaning the city needs to reduce its debt but not eliminate it. 

Bielarski estimated that the city needs to pay off $250 million to $450 million to return to higher standings with the rating agencies. He also expressed doubts the city commission would take the actions needed to satisfy JLAC. 

“The fact is that you don’t have commissions, you don’t have elected bodies, that take those types of actions,” Bielarski said. “It requires somebody in private industry to take those actions, or it takes an appointed board like Clemons was talking about in this bill.”   

City commissioners Bryan Eastman and Casey Willits highlighted the importance of the utility to Gainesville at recent city meetings. Eastman looked back at GRU’s history to show that Gainesville grew in large part because it had the utility.  

Former city commissioner Thomas Hawkins agreed with Long. He said the city has built and operated GRU for a long time without direction from Tallahassee. The citizens received approval from the state in 1912 to create a utility, and the citizens took the risk associated with the enterprise, he said.  

“The idea that the state of Florida wants to take [GRU] away from the taxpayers in Gainesville, is kind of outrageous,” Hawkins said in a phone interview.  

Hawkins called taking the utility from the citizens theft and spoke against a similar proposal in 2014 when serving on the city commission.  

He also pointed to GRU’s bond rating that remains in the investment tier, saying he’ll take Wall Street’s evaluation over that of politicians. 

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These people talk as though the residents are happy with the status quo. GRU is not affordable to low income residents. This mentality from the city officials is exactly why we are where we are. Also respectfully to everyone that’s says the city voted for this or for that isn’t true. The liberals with their uneducated can’t learn how to cross a street college students vote how their masters tell them. Not tge permanent residents.

Jason Lawnicki

GRU one of the reasons I’m leaving Gainesville to buy a house over in Bronson. Crooked people in charge.

Janice Garry

Thank you, Seth, for reporting on this issue and providing information from differing viewpoints. Your journalism chops are strong!

Susan Bottcher

It is patently false to say GRU is headed for bankruptcy. The entities that examine, analyze and asses the financial health and fiscal polices of utilities are the bond rating agencies. Here are the current ratings of GRU by the three bond rating agencies: Moodys AA3 (this is better than JEA, FPL, Duke, and Tampa Electric); Fitch A+; Standard and Poor A
These are all comparable to all the other utilities in Florida.
It is also patently false to claim an independent board of political appointees would result in lower electric rates. The proposed bill does not speak to rates or rate-setting in any manner. Not a single word even brings up rates. To promise that a DeSantis-appointed, independent board would result in lower rates is fantasy.
The last time an independent board for GRU was proposed (Clemons’ HB579 governance referendum) the Fl. Municipal Electric Assoc. stated that appointing an independent board to govern GRU is “an expansion of government, can result in higher property taxes and is unaccountable rate setting.”
At that same time Standard & Poor issued a report that said, “…limiting GRU’s rate setting autonomy would have negative implications for the utility’s credit rating. …it is unclear an independent Authority board would act in a manner that would appropriately balance ratepayer and bondholder concerns.”
The JLAC report identified 18 things the city needed to do to get things in line to their satisfaction. Two have been done, ten more are to be completed by summer and the last three are being addressed (deadline of Oct. 1st).
Not sure how the former General Mgr of GRU can “doubt the city would take action” on the JLAC issues when they have and they are.


“The JLAC report identified 18 things the city needed to do to get things in line to their satisfaction. Two have been done, ten more are to be completed by summer and the last three are being addressed (deadline of Oct. 1st).”

18-(10+2) = 3?

Susan Bottcher

oops, good catch. It should have said 15 things.

Edward Bielarski

The City twiddled it’s thumbs for the past 5 years as I warned them about reducing the GFT. After extracting $100 million more than what GRU earns from the utility, call me skeptical about them having a plan to reduce debt by $200 million in 3 years and $400 million in 5 to 10 years. All the while following a plan that would indent the city for another $3.6 billion to get to Net Zero by 2045. Imagine GRU without the City Commission siphoning $800 million out of the utility since 2000 along with saying no to the bIomass PPA. GRU could be debt free. Imagine.


Silicon Valley Bank had a good bond rating.
Until a week before it collapsed.

Janice Garry

So, for people who say they have no vote on GRU management now, why on earth would they want to have nobody have any input because an autonomous board has no accountability to anybody? That makes no sense. Saying that an Authority would fix rates is like throwing a hail Mary with no receiver.

Edward Bielarski

A truly independent board would stop the outrageous siphoning of GRU profits into city government. Are you okay with $800 million being extracted from GRU since 2000, leaving GRU with 5 plants over 50 years old? Are you okay with the original $2.5 billion biomass PPA that took a $750 million buyout to get out of. Without those mistakes, GRU would be debt free today. Your argument is a hail mary.

Susan Bottcher

There is absolutely zero evidence that “a truly independent board…” would do anything predictable on anything. Curious how you, when you were GM, fought hard against the last time Clemons proposed an indy board. Now, given your “civilian” status the flip flop emerges. What precipitated this action is the hand wringing over the debt that did not magically appear just now. It took a few years to get here….and you were GM during that time.

Edward Bielarski

That’s factually incorrect like always Susan. I took GRU debt from $2 billion to just over $1.6 billion. Look at the audited statements. Secondly, I implemented the debt defeasance program three years ago. It required a significant reduction in the GFT. A reduction the commission punted on. You know these are the facts. Thirdly, i didn’t fight against Clemon’s bill. I sited the facts in my DID YOU KNOW POSTS. Fourth, the debt has been exacerbated by the $100 mm that GRU had to borrow to fund the onerous GFT.

Gwen Wagner

Thank you for your fair reporting. I wish the Alachua Delegation would have made an effort to discuss this proposed bill by way of a public meeting in a location more accessible to GRU customers. I, for one, am particularly happy with the excellent, reliable service I receive from GRU and am proud to see the utilities efforts to be environmentally conscientious. The City Commission is newly elected and deserves an opportunity to implement solutions to the issues brought up by JLAC.

David Denslow

Hawkins “also pointed to GRU’s bond rating that remains in the investment tier, saying he’ll take Wall Street’s evaluation over that of politicians.” But he’d rather have politicians than business people be the de facto GRU Board of Directors.


What, business people never cause bankruptcies or chaos in the financial system? Board of Directors of businesses are always experts who never make bad decisions that cause their charges to flounder and fail? GRU has professional and experienced management staff who make recommendations to its Board of Directors who bring a separate level of skills to the table, same as any business.

Edward Bielarski

The City Commission hired a lifelong water engineer to be the General manager of the power heavy GRU. Never should have happened. Just one example.

Sherry Steiner

We are three years into a prudent debt reduction strategy that has pleased all three rating agencies. GRU continues to
be AA/A rated – better that Duke or FPL.
The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee has given the city commission until Oct. 1st to come up with a plan to further address GRU’s debt. Let’s give the new mayor and commissioners an opportunity to address this issue.

Edward Bielarski

Fitch wants $200 million of debt wiped out by 2025. Any ideas? $400 million in 5 to 10 years. Any ideas? Yep, neither does the commission. I do and it includes significantly reducing the GFT.

Wes Wheeler

Gainesville Regional Utilities is the crown jewel of Gainesville. It is owned, and governed, by the people it serves. We have our own, elected, board of directors who answer to us. It prioritizes our community needs, it hires our local family, friends and colleagues, it reinvests our revenues in our community. It is our utility and one that has been awarded RP3 Diamond status for reliability by the American Public Power Association. As noted in the article, all utilities must borrow money and GRU’s bond ratings are are good or better than any in the state. And, also as noted in the article, Gainesville City Commissioners have been, and are, addressing that debt by lowering the GFT and reducing City expenditures. The biomass contract buyout is a great example of the fiscal discipline shown by the Commissioners. It was not an easy decision, but it was the right one, and total debt load was reduced. And we have a great biomass facility that is a dependable, clean, renewable energy source that will be serving us for years to come. This proposed bill has nothing to do with debt, rates, or anything else being mentioned as excuses for (re)-filing it after it has been repeatedly rejected by Gainesville residents. This is simple political opportunism, pure and simple. If you want to bring it back to the people, again, I’m sure you will get the same vote, again: Keep your hands off of GRU!

Edward Bielarski

Fitch is expecting a $200 million reduction in debt by 2025. The $2 million reduction in GFT is no even relevant. much like the UAB.


All Knowing GRU Advisory Board , Kiss GRU and the Kickback Goodbye , Thanks to You!


City Commissioners, GRU and GRU advisory board members past and present. The first step into reality is to get past the denial stage. You own GRU’s downward spiral, 22% Debt Burden, as well as the pain and suffering you have bestowed this community. It’s time to accept your failed decisions and step aside. Have you read the statewide and nationwide articles about your performance? They are as bad as your google reviews.

Jeff Gehmann

Gainesville had one some of the lowest utility rates in the state prior to the stupid biomass plant PPA contract and the addiction of city commission to larger transfers to fund one idiotic idea after another. Now, the only utility in the state with higher prices is surrounded by water, Key West!!! Elected local leaders have zero knowledge, skills or experience to steer a large regional utility; and have a self dealing interest to get more spending money to feed their addiction. Good bill! Pass it ASAP.

Jeffrey Chaney

Go bankrupt. get rid of past mistakes and start over. get a money manager and no city.