by Rev. Frederick Newbill
The day was November 28, 2017. The place was JEA’s monthly board meeting. The time was at the conclusion of former JEA board chair and outgoing board member, Tom Petway’s, two-year term. The big news coming out of that meeting wasn’t the agenda, it was Tom’s farewell address that reintroduced a critical JEA-related community conversation, “Would customers be better served in a private marketplace?” Fast forward to almost exactly two years later and while JEA’s board and senior leadership team have heeded Tom’s recommendation, the way the subsequent “investigation” has been accepted by our community is far from the spirit in which it was intended.
I’d like to suggest that we as a community revisit Tom’s message through an open and collaborative lens. Tom was the chairman of JEA’s board when I was a board member back in January 2017. He made JEA’s board stronger, helped the utility grow and understood first-hand that a lot had changed since JEA became an independent authority in 1967 – the last decade being the most dynamic. Electric sales were, and still are, flat or down industry wide due to forces including energy efficiency and renewable energy, like solar. However, as the now vice chair of JEA’s board of directors, I am aware that the utility is not in dire straits today – its balance sheet is actually the most positive it’s been in years. In what was billed as an “odd twist” at the time, when Tom reintroduced the privatization conversation during that board meeting in November 2017, part of his argument was the fact that JEA is “at or very near peak performance.” And the same key argument can still be made today, JEA is so well run its worth more than ever in the private marketplace.
JEA’s worth in the private marketplace has never been greater. Its success is built on the tremendous amount of capital invested by the citizens of Jacksonville. Still, these facts should motivate, not hinder, the community and its city leaders to have a realistic, respectful and future-looking conversation about how best to serve JEA’s customers. Remember, none of this is happening simply for the sake of privatization. We owe our community all the facts, and details related to all the scenarios, so that the best decision can be made by everyone involved, both government officials and the citizens of Jacksonville.