Investigates: ‘Backdoor’ powerplay to sell JEA, says city councilwoman

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax is investigating three proposed state laws that local leaders say could create a scenario that leads to the City of Jacksonville potentially selling its utility company, JEA.


“Would you say this amounts to a state takeover?” Action News Jax Ben Becker asked City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor. “I would say it amounts to a taking,” said DeFoor who sat on the JEA Special Investigatory Committee that examined the failed sale of the utility in 2019.

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JEA initially wrote an email to council members stating that House Bill 1331 specifically would create a “total ban on earning a reasonable return on utility expenses” - meaning the annual payment to the City would effectively go away because of numerous restrictions.

A recent amendment appears to loosen the language, but there’s still questions of what will happen next with HB1331 along with SB1380 and SB1632.

The bills take aim at cities that critics claim are using too much utility money to bolster their general funds. Jacksonville receives about $122 million from JEA every year in place of property taxes.

“In my opinion, it’s an effort to come in the back door to create a scenario where it would be beneficial for the city to sell JEA,” said DeFoor.

Becker was there at the federal courthouse in March 2022, when former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn and CFO Ryan Wannemacher were both indicted for their role in the attempted sale.

Read: JEA board approves tripling base monthly charge

NextEra, which is FPL’s parent company had submitted the highest bid for JEA at $11 billion.

State Rep. Wyman Duggan’s (R-Jacksonville) law firm worked for NextEra during the 2019 privatization effort, although he said he had no direct involvement.

Duggan supports the house bill, but downplays it impacts JEA negatively - actually he said JEA told him just the opposite, “The formula under the bill would allow the amount of money JEA directly transfers to the city to go up $60 million over and above what they transfer now.” Becker asked JEA’s CEO Jay Stowe if that’s true, but Stowe wouldn’t confirm that exact number or any number.

“I’m going to work hard every day to be sure we are doing the best thing we do and keep JEA in hands of the city and community and people we serve,” said Stowe.

Read: INVESTIGATES: Councilmember Dennis offered job to resign, remove opposition to botched JEA sale

FPL sent Becker a statement regarding if the utility will pursue JEA again in the future.

“While we do not comment on market rumors, I can tell you FPL is squarely focused on serving our existing 5.8 million customers across Florida with clean, reliable and affordable energy.”

JEA said the mayor’s administration is taking a neutral position on the bills although you may recall Mayor Lenny Curry was a proponent of privatizing JEA in the past. The City did not respond to Becker’s request for comment.

As for DeFoor, she said the Office of General Counsel will have to judge what to do next, “If this passes, do we have a legal right to sue the State for the monies we would have received but can’t because of this new legislation.”

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Duggan said there still could be more amendments to the bills. For example, a provision that would have stripped JEA of its ability to set its own rates, has been taken out of HB1331.  The bills still must work their way through committees before heading to the floor for a possible vote. The measures are expected to be discussed at JEA’s board meeting on Tuesday.

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