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Difficult choices on the agenda for GRU budget meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

An email from GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski to the Gainesville City Commission yesterday warns that tomorrow’s GRU Budget Meeting (5 p.m.) will require some difficult decisions. The email was prompted by a notification from a City attorney that GRU’s agreement with Itron for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) will soon be ready to sign.

Bielarski says in the email that the funding for the Itron contract was to be provided from the savings from the 2019 debt restructuring, but “the commission’s actions requiring GRU to fund a $36 million GFT [General Fund Transfer] has resulted in the diversion of those savings.”

Bielarski further says that GRU’s only “levers” are utility rates, headcount, third-party services, and its profit. With the profit set by the GFT and third-party services “already reduced to the levels required for safety and reliability only,” the only options are to reduce headcount and/or raise utility rates. If the City Commission doesn’t raise utility rates, GRU will need to reduce headcount by as much as 14%, and that will make it impossible to implement AMI.

AMI replaces analog meters with smart meters and the capability for remote meter reading, data collection, real-time usage data for consumers, outage indication, connection/disconnection, and other factors. GRU has argued that the cost of implementing the technology will be offset by the cost savings.

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Several commenters at public meetings have argued that AMI will be used by GRU and the City to force Time of Use (TOU) dynamic pricing on GRU’s customers. Local attorney Ray Washington was trying to discuss this on February 4 when his mask fell down, he refused to pull it up because he was short of breath, Mayor Lauren Poe gaveled the meeting into recess, and Washington was arrested for trespassing. As a condition of pretrial release, Washington is not permitted to have any contact with the City, so he has been unable to speak about the issue at meetings.

Studies show that low and moderate income families and businesses will be disadvantaged by TOU: “Low and moderate income (LMI) customers are especially disadvantaged by TOU rates, [attorney Marcel Hawiger for customer advocacy group The Utility Reform Network] said. There is not a perfect correlation, but LMI customers tend to use less electricity, on average, ‘and we prefer tiered rates because they protect affordability for low usage customers.'”

Nathan Skop, a former Florida Public Service Commissioner, has argued that GRU would be better off “paying off its $1.7 billion mountain of debt with this $81 million rather than using it for AMI, which offers no tangible financial savings to GRU customers and may result in increased costs that particularly hurt low-income customers.”

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