With the sale of the local utility continuing to dominate headlines, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry addressed the Jacksonville City Council.
The appearance was not on the agenda for Monday’s meeting of the Council’s JEA Fact Finding Workshop.
But Curry, with numerous Council members questioning why the sale discussion is moving forward, has come to be seen as the main exponent for potential privatization of the utility.
The perception was underscored by an ad in Monday’s Florida Times-Union, in which former Mayor Jake Godbold blamed Curry for the sale push and called on Council to push back.
On Monday in a packed conference room in Jacksonville’s City Hall, which included lobbyists and insiders galore, Curry attempted to rein in a Council that has gradually become more independent since the March 2019 election.
The Mayor described the Council’s work as “critical.”
Describing a “crossroads” and lamenting “legacy costs,” Curry painted the picture of an “uncertain future” for the “status-quo” utility.
Noting that the structure is unchanged since consolidation a half-century ago, Curry made the case that change is not an option, but “vital to protecting the future of this community.”
“I philosophically believe that less government is better for the people,” and a “government-run utility” does not jibe, especially in the long-term.
Despite a “rocky and frustrating” process from JEA, with “occasional turbulence,” Curry retains confidence in the board he appointed in recent years. He also urged Council to avoid “political stunts” in its deliberation, noting the Mayor and City Council get to review JEA’s plan and approve it before submitting it for a voter referendum.
“I will oppose any effort to stop the planning process,” Curry vowed, singling out a “small segment of the media” as obstructionist.
Curry addressed media after this wrapped, saying that he stands with the Council, had no worries about Mayor Godbold’s position, and “people are not uncomfortable with the process” of exploring a sale.
Curry also noted that “recapitalization” wasn’t the only option on the table, saying that the process is not a premise to “grab money,” but to see what the best move strategically is for the “future of the JEA.”
He also defended the board, in a manner of speaking, despite a “frustrating, bumpy, rocky,” and at times “aggravating” process.
“They need to get their process right … they’re people, they’re human beings, they’re good public servants, private people who care about the future of Jacksonville,” Curry said.
The Mayor purged the JEA Board in 2015, replacing the previous Mayor’s appointees with people more aligned with the current administration. Some say that was a precursor to this exploration of privatization.
JEA is exploring what some call “privatization” and what others call “recapitalization,” but local policymakers have warned for the last couple of years that the current structure of the public utility is unsustainable.
The utility issued an invitation to negotiate earlier this year and has gotten bids globally.
Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Emera and others are making bids for the electricity service, while French water company Veolia is among those seeking the water side of the utility.
Curry urged a “mature conversation” about the future of the utility in 2017 and 2018, with key backer Tom Petway leaving the board, saying that privatization should be considered.
The Mayor has also contended that selling JEA could make Jacksonville “debt free,” if the sale met his condition of at least a $3 billion net. And he lauded the most recent decision to explore privatization by the JEA Board, one made just months after an election where he disclaimed interest in the sale.
If all goes as the Board hopes, benefits could be major: more than $3 billion of “value” for the city (replacing the JEA Contribution, with an extra billion to spare); $400 million in customer rebates; and 100 percent renewable energy for schools by 2030.
However, questions about the process have abounded.
JEA also got negative publicity last week, in light of Florida Times-Union reporting on an executive compensation scheme that could have moved up to $600 million of sale proceeds to members of the current c-suite. These proceeds would be on top of up to three to 12 months of post-employment consulting fees for those executives.
The utility has contracted with known Tallahassee players to help pitch.
Cavalry Strategies, the press shop of former Gov. Rick Scott Chief of Staff Melissa Stone, will help with external messaging.
The Southern Group was enlisted to help with intergovernmental messaging, including the Jacksonville City Council.
If Monday’s skepticism was any guide, these contractors and others will earn their money in the coming months, perhaps years.
Godbold, in public comments after the meeting, noted that four decades ago, he too was pressed to sell the utility.
His administration decided not to sell.