Maybe the most remarkable thing about the JEA sale controversy is how big a mess it has become.
Credit Mayor Lenny Curry.
He made Aaron Zahn head of the independent authority – over more qualified people – for the purpose of leading the sale effort.
Then he pretended selling the JEA wasn’t really his intent. Not long afterward he was telling everyone how wonderful it would be. Jacksonville will be debt free!
Scads of lawyers, public relations people and lobbyists have jumped into the fray, reaping millions.
The lobbyists probably were behind an effort to get a bill passed in the Florida Legislature that would prevent municipal-owned utilities from giving money to local governments – which is the entire justification for the city keeping JEA. If so, that was a cute bit of skullduggery.
Then the public has learned that top officials and employees of JEA have huge incentives in the form of cash payments to sell the utility company. City lawyers now are trying to determine whether that is ethical or not.
In addition, the JEA set up a ridiculous “performance pay” plan to lavish cash upon employees.
Meanwhile, the JEA is not outwardly looking at what fiscal resources it has and how it uses them.
Outsiders with excellent financial credentials have looked at JEA’s finances, as Eye noted several weeks ago. They determined that JEA has the capacity and tools at hand to fund at least $2 billion in new capital programs for such projects as extending sewer and water lines to areas still using polluting septic tanks and wells; and put underground old overhead electric lines It also could do massive drainage projects. All without raising current rates.
It appears the JEA board and management are focused on getting rid of the utility rather than making it better.
It also is clear that Curry has mishandled the matter from start to finish.
Two things Curry could do that might restore some of his credibility are:
- Fire the entire JEA board and appoint new members, with input from the City Council.
- Ask City Council Auditor Kyle Billy to do a fiscal examination of the JEA and see what its capacity is, then compare that to the presumed advantages of selling the utility to an investor-owned company.
The job of persuading the public to back a sale is difficult, and has been made more difficult by the way it has been handled. Correcting it will require restoring confidence in the process.