Lawmakers consider oversight of municipal utilities like JEA

Published on January 25, 2023 at 11:25 am

Florida House members Tuesday raised the possibility of giving state regulators more oversight of municipal utilities like JEA in Jacksonville.

Members of the House Energy, Communications & Cybersecurity Subcommittee repeatedly touched on the issue as they received presentations about the Florida Public Service Commission and the state Office of Public Counsel.

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The Public Service Commission regulates for-profit utilities such as Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy Florida but has little oversight of municipal utilities. The Office of Public Counsel represents consumers in regulatory cases at the Public Service Commission but lacks authority in municipal-electric issues.

Florida has 33 municipal utilities, including in cities such as Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Orlando and Gainesville, according to the website of the Florida Municipal Electric Association.

Lawmakers did not detail specific proposals for state oversight. But Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, expressed concerns about situations in which residents are customers of municipal utilities but live outside of city boundaries. He said they can be forced to pay surcharges but can’t vote for municipal officials — a situation he likened to “taxation without representation.”

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“Wouldn’t it be reasonable that if a municipal provider of … electricity stays within their boundaries, that would work,” Clemons said. “Once they venture out past their city limit or their boundary, there needs to be some way for citizens to be able to appeal something. Is there a mechanism whereby those citizens outside of the municipal boundary can come under the PSC or have some committee of the PSC that handles that jurisdiction?”

“I guess the simple answer, and it’s not a simple answer, is no,” Public Service Commission Executive Director Braulio Baez responded. “The reason I say no is because our governing statutes don’t give the agency (the Public Service Commission) that authority. Whether it’s reasonable or not, I think that is left to you all’s wisdom.”

Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, pointed to the possibility of the Legislature addressing rate-related issues as he questioned Baez.

“It sounds like we might need some legislation in this area to give you the authority to have jurisdiction over their rate structures, to make sure that all Floridians are getting power based on reasonable rates and that they (municipalities) are not supplementing some other venture that they’re putting on that is speculative, or whatever, in the municipality, with the utility rates,” Caruso said. “Because we need utility rates to be as low as possible for everybody in the state of Florida, like housing needs or water, it’s essential.”

Debates about municipal utilities serving customers in unincorporated areas have flared over the years, including a major dispute about a Vero Beach municipal utility serving residents in unincorporated parts of Indian River County. Ultimately, Florida Power & Light bought the Vero Beach utility in 2018.

Interim Public Counsel Charles Rehwinkel said Tuesday his office in the past has been asked to help in “vetting” ideas related to customers of municipal utilities. But the role was limited.

“We don’t have the authority under the statute to represent those people that are in no man’s land, that’s been described,” Rehwinkel said. “We just don’t, because they’re not investor-owned (for-profit) utility customers.”

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