Harvey Ward hints that GRU General Manager’s job is again in jeopardy
January 22, 2022
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
During commission comment at the end of the January 20 Gainesville City Commission meeting, Commissioner Harvey Ward signaled that Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) General Manager Ed Bielarski’s job may still be in jeopardy. Bielarski’s termination was previously added to the agenda of their September 13 meeting by Mayor Lauren Poe, but a motion from Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos to terminate his contract was withdrawn after it became clear he didn’t have the votes. At that meeting, Ward told Bielarski that he needed him to name a Chief Climate Officer and a team to work with the Climate Advisory Committee and the Utility Advisory Board and bring back a plan by January (this month) to get to 100% renewable energy. He needed him to “fold some duplicate services together with General Government.”
At the January 20 meeting, Ward referred to GRU’s failure to make the short list for UF’s Central Energy Project: “I was hoping we would get information on this before asking for it, that it would be offered to us as part of the regular business of the commission from a charter [officer]… We certainly felt good about getting on the short list, and I’m sure that there are good reasons that we were not on the short list… And given the assurances that we were given—assurances is the wrong word. That seems legalistic, and I don’t like that. It sounded to me like getting on the short list was going to happen and that that was a big reason that Mr. Bielarski was on the team… We didn’t get the bid. We didn’t get on the short list… For many, many years, the idea that we needed to do whatever we could to get UF to buy power from GRU has been a constant drum beat, and it should be… I felt like we were in a position to do that, and having missed it, we need to, as a body, have a better understanding of how we missed it and what we could do differently.”
Bielarski responded that they are still in a blackout period, and “we can’t discuss that because it’s subject to those rules of procurement… When we’re out of the blackout period, I’d be glad to discuss it.”
Hayes-Santos chimed in, “The UF proposal was more than disappointing. I mean, that was one of the things that we talked about for a long time, and to not even be close is a significant issue. And it does bring concerns in management—that was the main reason why we said we should keep our current management… he was the only one who was going to be able to get it done. I’m not sure how the rest of the commission feels, but that was concerning for me.”
Commissioner David Arreola referred to the rash of charter officer resignations in September of 2021 (the City Clerk later rescinded her resignation): “I think we have to strive for continuity but also make sure that we are upholding the highest standards for all charter offices.”
The next day, Bielarski sent an email to the city commissioners, stating that the only feedback they had from UF was their scoring of the bid, in which GRU finished 11th out of 11 respondents.
“None of my staff nor I know why UF scored GRU so low, but given the release of the Auditor General’s report and the focus on the size of GRU’s debt, along with the recent downgrades, one can only suspect that the financial wherewithal of the other parties was much stronger than ours.” – GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski
Bielarski wrote, “Each respondent’s submission was scored up to 1,000 points in four categories; Financial (300 points); Operations and Maintenance (300 points); Design and Construction (300 points); and Understanding (100 points). GRU received a score of 443 out of 1,000 points, while the top four respondents all received over 700 points. In the Financial section alone, GRU scored 50 points, versus the top 3 respondents received 285 points and the fourth received a score of 185. None of my staff nor I know why UF scored GRU so low, but given the release of the Auditor General’s report and the focus on the size of GRU’s debt, along with the recent downgrades, one can only suspect that the financial wherewithal of the other parties was much stronger than ours. Of particular note, Duke was 9 out of the 11 with a Financial score of 100 out of 300. Also, FPL is a partner in one of the short-listed entities.”
Bielarski included a presentation put together by GRU Chief Financial Officer Claudia Rasnick that included this chart:
The presentation said that based on the scoring results, GRU’s consultant, JP Morgan, “assumed” that UF “placed significant emphasis on demonstrated public-private partnership experience… GRU’s primary partnership, with UF on the SEC plant, was not factored in as UF considered it ‘conflicted out.’ Duke Energy’s project partnerships with UF were also excluded. GRU and Duke scored in the bottom three of the 11 proposals.”
Former Florida Public Service Commissioner and Attorney Nathan Skop wrote in an email to Alachua Chronicle that “Commissioner Ward doesn’t seem to understand that the UF Central Energy Project opportunity was not GRU selling electricity generated by GRU to UF. The opportunity was to design, construct, operate, and maintain the plant on UF campus for the benefit of UF. Although GRU had a fiduciary duty to pursue the UF Central Energy Project opportunity, this incremental revenue stream probably wouldn’t make a noticeable difference in lowering GRU electric rates and may have resulted in GRU issuing additional debt. Ward also cannot seem to figure out why UF didn’t short list GRU amongst the responses.”
Skop pointed out that GRU’s debt, a recent two-notch downgrade in GRU’s credit rating, and “dysfunction on the city commission” may have been factors. Skop concluded, “It is apparent that Commissioner Ward is now blaming GRU and using this as a pretext to fire the GRU General Manager for pursuing the opportunity, as instructed by the city commission.”
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