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Regional water-sewer approach gets boost with 9-to-1 vote

(Week of May 5, 2011)

Vero Beach and Indian River County are as closer to joining forces on water-sewer utilities than they ever previously have been in the two-year battle over the issue – unless someone or something throws a wrench into the negotiations.

In a joint meeting Friday of the Indian River Board of County Commissioners and the Vero Beach City Council, the county commission voted 5-0 to move ahead with taking over the City of Vero Beach water-sewer utilities, including assets, debt and customers.

Commissioner Peter O’Bryan called the move a visionary step. “Going to the regionalized system is the best thing for the community 20 years down the road,” he said. “It’s rate stabilization for everybody and everybody gets to be the same.”

Everyone would get the same county rates, but each community could tack on its own municipal taxes or franchise fees for its residents, say, if Vero needed to increase the amount of cash in its coffers. The plan would also get the city wastewater treatment plant off the riverfront property in two years or so.

The Vero Beach City Council voted 4-1 for the concept, with only Mayor Jay Kramer dissenting.

Kramer was expected to oppose consolidation even in concept, as he has stated publicly the deal equates to giving the utility away to the county. He also has said the water-sewer assets and customers could be worth as much as $70 million and others have floated numbers as high as $100 million.

In March, the mayor claimed to be working another angle with a private utility company called Government Services Group (GSG) which would offer $50 million cash for the utility. Nothing has ever come before the City Council from GSG, but that doesn’t mean the idea has gone away.

Kramer may only be one vote against consolidation, but he has the backing of high-paid consultants, not to mention the city water-sewer utility staffers who were told Friday those jobs would be lost once the county takes over.

Shortly after the meeting adjourned, Kramer scheduled a workshop of the Vero Beach City Council for 4 p.m. this past Tuesday to discuss “issues concerning the City of Vero Beach.”

Vero City Clerk Tammy Vock said neither Kramer nor the staff gave her any backup documents for the workshop.

As a private citizen, Indian River Shores Town Councilman Mike Ochsner spoke during public comment at Friday’s meeting, saying that consolidation might make his personal water bill go up “but I think it is the best thing to do because less government is the right thing to do.”

Friday’s vote takes the pressure off the Town of Indian River Shores a bit, as the town can begin negotiations with Indian River County with the knowledge that town residents would end up as customers of the county water-sewer system anyway.

In the meantime, Shores Mayor Tom Cadden has reportedly been working behind the scenes to negotiate an extra few months for the Shores to make its decision. Cadden also convinced the Town Council last week to hire back GAI Consultants to give the town more advice about its utilities.

Cadden tried to convince his fellow council members to meet individually with GAI’s principal Gerry Hartman in private. The other council members said they would rather ask questions – and get answers -- in the sunshine.

Councilman Dick Haverland fought Cadden on this and won -- a sign that GAI’s advice might not be as well regarded as it once was at the Shores Town Hall.

“I have just a general problem with him (Hartman) working for the city,” Haverland said.

 GAI Consultants is the same firm that’s still working for the City of Vero Beach water-sewer system. The company is also handling the Florida Power and Light deal for Vero for $250,000.

GAI strongly recommended that the Shores stay with Vero Beach Utilities, so the fact that the Shores has agreed to pay GAI for more advice could mean another chapter in the seemingly endless water-sewer consolidation saga.