Mayor Lenny Curry say sale of public utility is not a "done deal."
City Council Finance Committee Chair Garrett Dennis is questioning the city’s possible sale of JEA, a public utility, to a private buyer.
Dennis said Wednesday the first step is learning more about the city’s relationship with the utility from council member John Crescimbeni, who has served two separate terms for a combined 17 years as of December.
“He’s, for lack of a better word, the dean of the council,” said Dennis about Crescimbeni, a fellow Democrat.
Dennis has a meeting with Crescimbeni at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Conference Room A on the fourth floor of City Hall at 117 W. Duval St.
“I want to understand what are the implications of selling one of our most valuable assets,” Dennis said.
“It may look good today to get a big hunk of money upfront, but what does that mean in 15 or 20 years?” he said.
Discussions about privatization began in late November when outgoing JEA board member Tom Petway used his parting remarks to encourage the board to explore the possibility.
Reading a prepared statement, Petway asked board members if “the customers of JEA and the people of Jacksonville be better served in the private marketplace?”
“Should JEA and the city of Jacksonville consider the financial benefits that would come from the privatization of JEA?” he said.
A week later, board Chair Alan Howard instructed JEA Chief Executive Paul McElroy to explore the options. A financial audit by a third-party company is underway.
“One question I have is when and how will the public get a chance to weigh in on this?” Dennis said. “I have constituents already asking those questions.”
In response to Petway’s suggestion, Mayor Lenny Curry said in a statement a day after the JEA meeting that he welcomed the review.
“As a reform-minded mayor, I welcome this challenge and will work with City Council leadership to answer these questions,” the statement read.
Since he was appointed to chair the Finance Committee in July by council President Anna Brosche, Dennis has sparred with Curry and others on issues from the budget to the Kids Hope Alliance.
Curry said Thursday “it was wise to know the value of your assets” when asked about the need to evaluate a potential sale.
“That’s what good government does, that’s what good business does and that’s what good households do,” Curry said.
Petway was appointed to the JEA board two years ago by Curry and remains a financial backer of the mayor’s political efforts.
Dennis said his inquiry is based on his responsibilities as Finance Committee chair.
“We shouldn’t look at JEA as a piggy bank,” he said. “Because once we sell it, it’s gone.”
Dennis said he was not sure how much JEA could potentially be worth, saying the last estimate he was given was “around $3 billion.”
He said selling the authority could put the city at a disadvantage because it no longer would be under the microscope of the council.
“Right now, if something goes wrong, we can bring them in front of City Council, in front of our committees, and they have to explain themselves and be accountable,” Dennis said.
“If this was a private company, we wouldn’t have the authority to bring them before our committee to hold them accountable,” he said.
On Wednesday, a memo reportedly circulated to JEA management and reported by Action News detailed how a change of control or sale could impact their employment and their pay if retained or terminated.
During a news conference Thursday, Curry said he had expressed his disappointment with JEA over the memo and that to his understanding, the JEA board was unaware the memo was sent.
“The idea that 60-something people have been promised some sort of a parachute is problematic and I’m not pleased with it and I have my team working to resolve it,” Curry said.
Curry also dismissed the assertion that JEA management circulating the memo signaled that a decision to sell the utility was made.
“There is no done deal,” Curry said. “They’ll have to have an evaluation, it will have to be discussed with the public. Nothing gets done without this City Council.”
Dennis said in response that he supports taxpayers’ voicing their opinions and will push the discussion to council chambers.