Illustration by Shannon Nehiley.

 Among hundreds of records in a low-lit room, Andrew Schaer, a local business owner and Gainesville resident for 36 years, hunches over his coffee table. He organizes the nearly 120 utility bills he’s amassed from the past six years in his large northwest Gainesville home and his downtown business, Hear Again Records.

Schaer is conscious of his power use. His family keeps the A/C at 80 degrees, runs the dishwasher once a day, does laundry every couple of days and uses their record player for only a few hours in the evening.

Schaer has not changed his habits, but over the past five years he has seen his energy bills rise significantly. For his home, his bill has increased by an average of $61.97; his business, $42.76.

“We do nothing differently,” he said with resigned frustration.

Several miles to the south is Tower Oaks Glen, a low-income neighborhood where Rollon Williams lives in a tiny town home with his wife and two young children. Williams’s family does not run the A/C or the heat, their TV is only on two hours a day and they use their washer and dryer once a week. Their habits are more frugal than Schaer’s and their living space is far smaller, yet Williams’ bill runs an average of $260 a month. For Schaer, it’s a bad month to break $200.

93,000 private residents in and around Gainesville get their energy from Gainesville Regional Utilities, or GRU, the city’s publicly owned utility. Though utilities are a run-of-the-mill local controversy, Gainesville’s bills are the highest in the state. Residents of all income levels have complained that their bills seem inconsistent, unfair and arbitrary. Local politicians have proposed a variety of reasons for why residents’ bills are so high, but no explanation offers a clear picture.

Attempts to contact GRU via email to ask about the factors that go into a bill are returned with unexplained redirections to web pages rather than direct answers. Though almost all of GRU’s information is publicly available, it can be confusing to sift through it all. Even then, the answers are not straightforward.

“When you go down to GRU and try to set something up with them, it’s like you’re talking to the building,” Williams said.

***

Before GRU, the city was buying power from Gainesville Gas and Electric, a private power company that consistently suffered from outages.

In December 1912, GG&E’s poor service led the city commission to dispute its monthly charges. It asked the company to deduct $10 from their utility bill, but GG&E refused. After no compromise from either end, the private company completely shut off the city’s power.

Incensed, citizens took action, rallying to vote to create a public municipal utility company that would be controlled the city commission, according to GRU’s website. 

Now GRU is an entrenched portion of Gainesville’s local government.

“Everyone in Gainesville owns GRU,” said city commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos.

Today, the city fully owns two power plants, both of which are powered by fossil fuels. In 2009, the city looked to diversify its power through purchased power agreements, legal contracts the city signs to acquire outside sources of power for a specific period of time. The city currently has three such agreements for landfill gas, solar and biomass.

Motivated by a need for more power and its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the city signed the third contract for biomass with Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, or GREC. But the contract was poorly negotiated, said James Thompson, the volunteer coordinator for Jenn Powell’s city commission campaign.

“If this is the pace and our utility bills are just going to go up and up and up, then where’s the breaking point,” Schaer asked. 

The agreement was initially for 20 years but was extended to 30 years. It also only obligated GRU to purchase half of GREC’s power capacity. Instead, the final agreement was for all of its power. And even though GRU is not currently purchasing any power from the biomass plant, it must still pay GREC $70 million a year to keep the plant operational.

In 2015, a consulting company conducted an independent review of GRU and found that the city’s agreement to purchase biomass energy did cause increases in customers’ bills. At that point, the consulting company found, any other utility would have split.

Gainesville currently has $2.2 billion in future obligations to private companies, a much higher charge than the city faced in 1912. This is exactly the kind of private interest that citizens looked to stop, which has opened the doors for discussions about the city purchasing the plant.

“It’s going to be even worse if we don’t buy the plant,” Thompson said.

City commissioner Hayes-Santos advocates revisiting the Purchased Power Agreement so that the city of Gainesville can buy GREC outright, rather than purchase power from the private companies that own it. He said that citizens would probably see rates drop 10 to 15 percent almost immediately for both residential and business customers.

“We need to take a deep look at it, we need to have full transparency, we need to make sure it’s in the best interest for Gainesville residents,” Santos said.

Another contribution to the increase in customers’ bills is the two-tier electric rate system that was approved in October of 2015 for the 2016 fiscal year, a decision impacted by the costs incurred by GREC. It costs GRU a fixed amount to provide power to the city, and the tiered structure is used to determine how much residents should pay to use that power.

Previously the city adhered to a three-tiered rate structure, designed to encourage conservation. Residents who fell into tier one, meaning that they used less power, paid less than GRU’s fixed cost, and residents who fell into tier three paid much more. Those in tier two paid the closest to GRU’s cost of providing.

But under the new two-tiered system, customers at the higher and lower ends are both brought closer to paying GRU’s fixed rate. This means that residents in tier one, who tend to have lower income, pay more, said Lauren Poe, Gainesville’s mayor. Residents in tier three, who tend to have a higher income, now pay less.

“When you go down to GRU and try to set something up with them, it’s like you’re talking to the building,” Williams said.

Both Poe and Hayes-Santos are advocating for a different rate structure.

“I brought it up in the last year’s budget but there was only one other person interested,” Poe said. “I told them I’m going to keep bringing it up.”

GRU is not just a local political issue. It’s also been brought up at the state level.

Senator Keith Perry has proposed a bill in the Florida legislature House of Representatives three separate times that would take control of GRU from the city commission and give it to an advisory board. After a year, citizens would be forced to vote on whether they wanted to give the advisory board complete control over the utility. The bill is supported by both the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Builder’s Association of North Central Florida—where Keith Perry’s roofing company is a board member.

“All this bill does is give the voters of Gainesville the ability to decide how they want their utility run,” Perry said.

However, if citizens vote to transition GRU governance to the Utility Advisory Board, the board has no responsibility to the people. GRU has issues, but as a public municipal utility, Gainesville citizens have the power to meet with city commissioners to voice their concerns and hold them accountable for their decisions.

***

GRU was created to give residents local control over their energy, but the city’s lower income residents have been consistently excluded from the decision making process.

Regardless of the varying factors, low income residents see higher electric bills on average. According to the 2015 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, low income households spend around 10% of their income on electricity, which is four times more than the average consumer. Gainesville is no different.

“There’s no system in Alachua county designed to help the poor people,” Williams said. “If you’re poor, it seems like they just walk on you. They don’t even care.”

The city does offer a program designed to help low income customers lower their bills by updating their appliances, but it’s only offered to homeowners. Customers who rent are ineligible.

Furthermore, the utility has no policies in place designed to work with low income people on paying their bills. And the current late fee policy is punishing: Any portion of a bill left unpaid 21 days after its due date results in service disconnection, no matter how small the difference. Delinquent service disconnection fees run steep at $52 for electric, $52 for water and $75 for gas. If your service needs to be connected outside of normal working hours, it’s an additional fee.

If a customer accrues a certain amount of delinquency points on their account, they are charged a large security deposit, which is split up and tacked onto their bills.

“We pay the security deposit, you see that we are struggling to pay and then you give us a higher security deposit because we keep getting extensions,” said Megan Purvis, a resident of Tower Oaks Glen.

The city does offer a program designed to help low income customers lower their bills by updating their appliances, but it’s only offered to homeowners. Customers who rent are ineligible.

Low income and working class people do not have the same access to city commissioner meetings and do not have the same influential financial power as big landlords or the Chamber of Commerce, so their voices on GRU policies are not heard.

Although a home’s age is surely a factor of high GRU bills, several low income citizens claimed that the technician that visits their property do not read their meter.

“They say sometimes they can’t read our meter because we have bad dogs but our meter is not inside our fence, it’s on the side of our building,” Purvis said. “So they’re just not taking the time to walk around the building to check our water meter. This month we got charged for last month’s and this month’s water.”

Purvis is not the only resident who has experienced this.

“One month my gate was locked and they couldn’t read the meter so I guess they put whatever they wanted down on the meter,” said Vanessa Ross, another resident of Tower Oaks Glen.

GRU was unable to comment on these claims due to their slow response rate. This disjointed communication seems to be the biggest deterrence for fixing the high rates city residents face and getting to the crux of the issue.

“I think they should just work with people sometimes,” Ross said. “Sometimes life is hard but they don’t care.”

A week ago, citizens gathered at City Hall to discuss buying the biomass plant, perhaps the first step to decrease the city’s utility bills. But the meeting, which addressed merely a single issue of this costly puzzle, ran three hours long.

The city wants to purchase the biomass plant to reduce resident’s utility bills. But GREC rejected the city’s most recent offer, and the controversy continues.

“If this is the pace and our utility bills are just going to go up and up and up, then where’s the breaking point,” Schaer asked. “Where do we hit the point where people just can’t pay their bills anymore?” •