Gainesville Regional Utilities’ new interim general manager said the utility is going to be working on a plan to bring electric rates down over the next several months.
Kathy Viehe told a small-business growth task force Wednesday night that lowering rates is one of GRU’s highest priorities.
“We have to work with the City Commission to make things happen,” she said. “I feel the commitment’s there and our commitment’s there.”
Viehe spoke at the first meeting of the Gainesville Small Business Growth Task Force in a meeting room at the Alachua County Library Headquarters in downtown Gainesville.
The group was assembled by the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and city government to follow up on 27 recommendations to the city to foster small-business growth that came out of a May forum hosted by the chamber and then Mayor-elect Ed Braddy.
Among the recommendations is to lower utility costs that have risen as a result of the city’s contract to purchase power from the new biomass plant.
While the will is there, Viehe admitted the way would be difficult.
“It’s easy to sit here and say it. It’s harder to do it,” she said.
Viehe was promoted to lead GRU for the time being after Bob Hunzinger announced his resignation last month.
Braddy, who co-chairs the task force with chamber President/ CEO Tim Giuliani, expressed confidence that Viehe is starting to put the right people together “to get us to a better rate structure for businesses as well as for everybody.”
Viehe said GRU is working with the chamber to provide breaks for businesses to expand or move into town to help fill empty facilities that aren’t generating revenue.
The 17-member task force, consisting of city staff and small-business owners and managers, ran through the 27 recommendations with about 40 people in attendance.
The group plans to meet quarterly for a year to measure progress and took volunteers for a number of groups to work on the details in the meantime.
Regarding the goal of lowering costs for businesses, City Manager Russ Blackburn said the city has to strike a balance between low costs and funding services that improve quality of life.
Braddy said the city needs more collaboration on community priorities if it is to cut costs and services.
“I want lower taxes, lower fees and all of that stuff. There’s also programs and services we like to offer,” he said.
Regarding the recommendation for the city to go back to a five-day work week, Blackburn said that’s $240,000 in savings to shut down buildings on Friday that would have to be added back to the budget.
He said they do plan to test the idea of opening the Thomas Center, which houses the building department, on Friday and having a planner on duty.
The goal, however, is to make city services available on the Web, he said. The city is working on software to allow people to apply for permits and submit building plans online.
“We think it’s antiquated and wastes a lot of time if you have to come in to our building,” Blackburn said. “You shouldn’t have to come to City Hall.”
Building official John Freeland said he is working to make sure inspectors enforce the rules consistently.
John Fleming of Trimark Properties said it can be easier to agree with an inspector who may be wrong than fight them and have to face them again.
“That’s a culture change for me to deal with,” Freeland said. “I set the expectation that they should be able to cite code. Can you cite the section or not? If not, it’s not a violation.”
Braddy said he wanted the fear of retribution to end immediately.
The city has already been working on several of the recommendations, some prior to May’s meeting.
Blackburn said the city has been working on its customer service for more than a year and plans to roll out a way for the public to provide feedback on how they’re doing within the next six months.
The city is updating its website within the next 30 days and with that will include a page that shows all of the requirements for starting a new business with links to other agencies and organizations they need to know about. The city is also updating a pamphlet to include the same information.
Erik Bredfeldt moved into his role as economic development and innovation director full time about three weeks ago to serve as a sort of ombudsman to help usher businesses through city permitting processes. He had been sharing those duties with his job as planning director.
Via: The Gainesville Sun by Anthony Clark