This fall, the citizens of Gainesville are scheduled to vote on a referendum that puts decision-making regarding Gainesville Regional Utilities in the hands of experts instead of local politicians.
If passed, it would create a GRU Independent Utility Board. This will greatly increase the odds of good decision-making, devoid of the politics ruled by the expedience of the moment. The ratepayers would have a chance to have their voices heard.
But they might never get this opportunity. Several Gainesville politicians, who either voted for the rate-busting biomass plant or let it happen, have sued to take this off the ballot. They want to take your voice away.
Why is this vote necessary? Back in 2009, Gainesville politicians voted in favor of entering into a contract for biomass energy with an out-of-state contractor. Despite many warnings by local experts and myself, they went forward with this contract. It ended up costing GRU ratepayers $70 million each year, until the city voted to purchase the biomass plant for $750 million earlier this year.
Furthermore, local politicians voted to guarantee that all savings from purchasing the biomass plant would go back to the ratepayers. This followed the recommendation from the Utility Advisory Board. However, the city of Gainesville politicians reneged. They instead decided to divert $2.7 million per year of those savings toward hiring 15 new people to the city of Gainesville.
GRU rates are already among the highest in Florida for residential ratepayers, and the highest in the state for commercial ratepayers. Local politicians had their chance at making wise decisions, but their refusal to listen to experts and push their agenda of the moment without consideration of cost has consistently led to bad-decision making regarding GRU.
This must stop in order for our rates to reverse their almost continuous upward trend.
These high rates have devastating consequences on those that are least able to afford basic utility services. These high rates have devastating consequences on job creation and attracting technology business to the city of Gainesville. Just the other day, it was announced that the city of Alachua, not Gainesville, will have a new Tech City development complete with tiny houses. Why not Gainesville?
Our politicians have a history of bad decision-making when it comes to GRU. If the community is to continue to own its own utility, something has to change. If the current pattern continues, it will lead to the ruin of GRU or its eventual sale to a private company.
Time after time, Gainesville citizens have had to stand by as politicians make these bad decisions. But the referendum would put utility matters back into the hands of people actually paying the bills.
The citizens of Gainesville should have the opportunity to change things. What are local politicians so afraid of that they don’t want to even let them have this vote?
The ratepayers should have a chance to have their voices heard. Don’t let local politicians take that right away. That’s about as un-American as it gets.
Darin Cook is CEO of Infinite Energy and former chairman of the Utility Advisory Board.