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Employees Skeptical As City Council Members Discuss Privatizing JEA

Ryan Benk
Councilman Garret Dennis fielding questions after his Tuesday meeting on JEA privatization.

Nine of Jacksonville’s 19 council members discussed the potential JEA sale before a throng of utility employees Tuesday.

Former JEA board member and Mayor Lenny Curry political contributor Tom Petway floated the idea of privatizing the utility while announcing his retirement late last year.

As first reported by Action News Jax, JEA leadership promised severance packages to managers who agreed to stay on through a potential privatization process — a revelation that’s raised doubts about the deal for some council members and employees. The offers have since been rescinded.

The fact rank-and-file employees weren’t offered the same incentives has local Liuna union leader Ronnie Burris concerned about what privatization would look like for the 300 JEA workers he represents.

“Are they promised a job tomorrow? I mean, we have a workforce that probably averages age 40 years old,” he said. “In today’s time, it’s an older workforce, and it’s going to be harder for them to look for jobs. What happens to them? Are they going to be kept? Are they going to be retained?”

Councilman Garrett Dennis, who called the meeting, said he worries leadership have already made up their mind. Dennis wants to see Duval County voters weigh in on a potential JEA sale, but the city’s charter makes clear it’s up to Council to decide what to do with public assets, city legal staff said.

“The meeting today basically has brought it to the forefront, and now all eyes [are] on the whole process from beginning to end,” he said.

Dennis said he’ll look into what charter changes could be made to allow for a referendum.

Meanwhile, an evaluation of JEA’s value is ongoing and isn’t expected to be finished for a couple of months, but previous evaluations found the utility’s net worth to be around $3 billion.

In addition to paying taxes and fees, JEA is an independent authority responsible for $116 million a year in payments to the city, under its agreement. Councilman John Crescimbeni said whether a referendum is required or not, citizens should have a say in whether those annual payments are traded for a lump sum of cash up front.

“It’s owned by the ratepayers, and I think they should participate in that decision. I’ve always felt that way. If it’s a good deal, they’ll say yes. If it’s a bad deal, they’ll say no. I’m one of those people,” he said. “How would I vote? I don’t know. There’s nothing in front of me, but I think I need to have a right to vote, not as a Council member, but as a shareholder.”

Members said they will hold more public meetings on the subject.

Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.