Keith Perry is coming for your utility

by Jason Fults

Feb. 25 was a great day for Florida Representative Keith Perry (R). Promising to “keep government off your back and out of your pocketbook,” he announced his bid for the newly-drawn Florida Senate district that includes all of Alachua and Putnam counties as well as part of Marion county.

He also scored a legislative victory with the assent of his House Bill 1355 by the House Regulatory Affairs Committee. This bill offered Gainesville voters the “opportunity” to vote away control of their municipally-owned utility, Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), on the March 2017 ballot. Despite unanimous opposition to this bill by the politically-diverse Gainesville City Commission, Alachua County Commission, and Representative Clovis Watson, as well as emails and phone calls from more than 300 area residents, the Committee passed Rep. Perry’s bill by a vote of 13-2.

This was the third year in a row that Rep. Perry had sought passage of some version of this bill, and it was supported by the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and the North Central Florida Builder’s Assoc.

Following significant citizen resistance and behind-the-scenes lobbying by our City Commission and the Florida Municipal Electric Assn., HB 1355 was finally killed through an 11th hour veto by Governor Rick Scott. Given Rep. Perry’s promise to “go back to the drawing board” next session, however, it is important that Gainesville voters see through this ruse and oppose any similar future attempts.

If not, they’ll be risking handing over near complete control of their utility, including “… managing, operating, controlling, and otherwise having broad authority with respect to the utilities owned by the City of Gainesville … free from direction and control of the Gainesville City Commission.”

The “Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority,” as proposed by Rep. Perry, would have had power to set utility rates for the community, build new power plants, exercise the power of eminent domain, issue revenue bonds, dispose of utility assets, hire or fire GRU’s General Manager, and determine the amount of funds that GRU transfers to the City’s budget each year. In other words, this five-person Authority would have had all the powers of our elected City Commission, but with none of the accountability to its citizenry.

Once they were appointed by a simple majority vote of the City Commission, each member of the Authority could have been reappointed for up to twelve years, at a salary of $18,000/year, and could have been removed only under very limited circumstances.

As former City Commissioner Susan Bottcher pointed out: “To illustrate why this is so dangerous, the Authority could, for example, decide to build another power plant even though it is not needed. Or the Authority could decide to raise rates, sell the telecommunications department and gut the general fund transfer (which would bankrupt the city).

Sure, you can attend their publicly noticed meetings and tell them to stop, but HB 1355 eliminates all legal or electoral recourse for anyone to control what they do. This must be the ‘free-market principle’ that Rep. Perry says he likes about the bill.”

This debate has unfolded as Flint, Michigan continues to grapple with the catastrophic decisions of political appointees regarding its water supply, and many in this community believe that Perry’s efforts are simply a step in the direction of privatizing our publicly-owned utility.

Undoubtedly, the Chamber of Commerce and Builder’s Association will launch further attempts to create such an Authority, and citizens must remain vigilant against these asinine proposals. We can send an even stronger message this November however by fighting to keep Florida Senate hopeful Keith Perry “off our backs and out of our pocketbooks.” 

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