JEA Board Chair Asks To Hit ‘Restart Button’ On Public Discussion Of Possible Sale

Dec 9, 2019

JEA’s board chair asked a Jacksonville City Council committee Monday to hit “restart” on the last three months of public discourse concerning a possible sale of all or part of the city-owned utility.

April Green told City Council’s JEA committee that she knows the conversation around a potential sale has not been positive, and she’s disappointed to hear many council members have concerns about transparency. She promised she would make her best effort to attend all JEA workshops going forward, and she recommended a resolution saying that a JEA board member cannot be employed by or contract with JEA for one year after leaving the board.

“I personally, especially after hearing what I've heard today, am committed to meet with each and every council member to answer every question you may wonder about, from a board perspective, receive any suggestions, research any matters about which you are curious, and take all suggestions under serious consideration,” she told the committee during the third of several workshops scheduled to consider the future of JEA. “In the end, whatever proposed strategic option the board brings back [to] the council for your review, it may not meet your test. We certainly don't know yet. We have five scenarios, and the board has not made a final recommendation on which scenario it will support.”

Green’s comments came at the end of a contentious two-hour meeting, where many council members questioned and criticized JEA leaders about the public perception of the process and about conflicting information the council itself has received.

District 3 Councilman Aaron Bowman said, “Certainly it seems to me that you got together and said, ‘Let's scare all the employees. Let's scare the consumers. Let's offer them cash incentives and then they'll come running to want us to sell this utility.’ I'm telling you, that's what I see and that's the impression from the community. We've talked about town halls. My recommendation is we've got to get them started now.”

The committee’s workshop Monday also allowed Council members to ask JEA leadership about the utility’s finances and about the five options on the table — one of them being privatization.

JEA President and COO Melissa Dykes said no matter what happens, JEA can’t continue to offer its current level of service without raising rates or finding alternative revenue sources.

“It's a really important underlying fundamental thing for us all to understand, is there isn't a shining rainbow happy ending here. It is a very challenging set of circumstances that we find ourselves in,” she said.

She and CFO Ryan F. Wannemacher presented the committee with charts showing declining sales figures despite a growing number of customers, as utilities nationwide deal with the effect of more energy-efficient technologies. The JEA leaders said the utility has managed to cut projected rate increases in half by paying down debt early and cutting staff – but those measures can only go so far before customers start noticing service is suffering.

Dykes said JEA is limited in its ability to seek new revenue because of the federal, state and local laws about municipal utilities.

An example: “Right now we react to solar, and particularly distributed solar like residential customers, by essentially just dealing with lower sales and dealing with a grid that's less efficient. But right now under our under our legal structure we're not able to get into the solar installation business ourselves. And that could be a business opportunity that gets unlocked through a different structure,” she said.

Some limitations exist on JEA’s ability to lease dark fiber, expand its water offerings and seek other sources of funding as well, Dykes said.

She told the Council that JEA is still finalizing some of its research into its five options. When asked why the utility would proceed with exploring a possible sale – just one of the five — before work was complete on understanding all of the options, she responded: “For us to be able to go through a thoughtful strategic planning process that is scenario-based, we have to develop all the scenarios. And that one just takes the longest to develop.”

Full Video Of The Third JEA City Council Workshop

Contact Jessica Palombo at 904-358-6315, jpalombo@wjct.org or on Twitter at @JessicaPubRadio.

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