Why sell JEA? Who would benefit?

JEA workers, citizens ask questions at Jacksonville City Council meeting

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Love it or hate it, the JEA is at the center of a public debate about what the utility is worth to the city of Jacksonville and if there are good reasons to sell it to a private owner.

The utility, with over 455,000 electric customers and hundreds of thousands who get water and sewer service from it, was the subject of a special meeting Tuesday attended by nine City Council members. Some Jacksonville homeowners and a host of JEA employees also attended, wanting the same answers: Why would the utility be sold and who would benefit?

The JEA has commissioned a study to answer those questions. The latest figures show JEA is worth about $2.6 billion. If it were sold, the city could receive a pile of money to invest.

Some JEA employees, who feel the sale is eminent, and others who attended told the council members that selling the utility right now is a bad idea. They told the special meeting that the decision should be up to the voters, who actually own the utility, not a decision by the JEA's board.

"Down the road, this is going to be the biggest mistake this county or city could make by selling the biggest asset that we own," Glenda O’Connor said.

"There is a lot of feelings going on right now of uncertainty. Biggest thing is, we need to know what is going on," JEA lineman Kenneth Presley said.

While there were no actions that would come out of the fact-finding meeting, council members wanted to find out why JEA sent out a letter to senior staff members telling them they would get a huge bonus if they stayed with the utility during sales talks, then rescinded that offer. Some council members also wanted to find out if voters would or could have the final say on a sale.

"This is a crown jewel of Jacksonville. This is probably our biggest asset," Councilman John Crescimbeni said. "It’s owned by the ratepayers and I think they should participate in that decision."

Councilman Garrett Dennis, who called the meeting, doesn't know who is behind the idea to sell the JEA.

"We don’t know who it’s being driven (by). But now ... it’s our obligation to vet it and to see what is best for the citizens," Dennis said.

Mayor Lenny Curry's chief of staff, Brian Hughes, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon about the possibility of a sale:

We will work with City Council as JEA approaches the conclusion of research initiated by its senior leadership at the direction of the JEA Board. Commenting or speculating about future decisions before the conclusion of that work is premature. Whatever future decisions that are related to JEA, Mayor Curry is always guided by two steadfast principles: 1. Any future action MUST be in the best interest of JEA ratepayers and the taxpayers of our city, and 2. Such action MUST demonstrate a commitment to the hard work and success of every man and woman working every day at JEA to serve our community.”

A spokesperson for JEA said the utility was not talking about the potential at this time. It is not known if the study about selling the utility would be discussed at the next JEA board meeting, which is set for Feb. 20.

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