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Voters overwhelmingly approve leasing power plant site
But mandate to sell Vero electric muddled with changes on Council

(Week of November 10, 2011)

An overwhelming “yes” vote Tuesday gave the Vero Beach City Council the clear message that not only Vero electric customers – but even city residents – want the city to get out of the electric business.

Voters by a nearly 2-to-1 margin gave the City Council permission to lease the property under Big Blue and hammer out a deal with Florida Power and Light for the sale of Vero’s electric utility. But they also tempered their vote by changing the makeup of the Council.

It might seem contradictory that 66 percent of the voters approved the referendum – 2,074 to 1,075 – and voters also chose Dick Winger – who advocated a “no” vote – to replace Brian Heady, a leading proponent of the sale of Vero electric, on the City Council.  But that’s what happened.

When asked if the overwhelming “yes” vote on the referendum changed his perspective in terms of what voters want, Council member-elect Winger replied, “No.”

“People are expecting the sale of the utility, which I support. I don’t think the referendum was very important,” Winger said.

Utility activist and CPA Glenn Heran, who formed the Citizens for a Brighter Future political action committee to promote a “yes” vote, raised nearly $10,000 to place advertisements, send mailers and print roadside signs. The majority of the money to fund the PAC came from Vero electric customers who live outside the city limits and could not vote.

“It’s another victory for the community,” Heran said. “A ‘yes’ vote is clearly signaling that this community wants to sell this utility as they’ve been saying for the last three years. Get it done, get it sold.”

Vero City Council member Craig Fletcher, whose term has another year to run and who could wind up next Monday as the new Vero Beach mayor, said he thought the referendum vote was “a resounding ‘yes’ to sell the plant.  It was why they elected us last year,”

“It reaffirms the sell message,” Fletcher added.

“I am very happy that the overwhelming majority of the voters in this referendum vote chose to go forward with the deal with FPL to craft a deal for the financial benefit of the residents of Vero Beach,” said Council Member Tracy Carroll, top vote-getter on the ballot.

Critics of the referendum argued that voters were being asked to approve a “blank page.”  The contingent pushing for a “no” vote, led by Mayor Jay Kramer and former Mayor Warren Winchester, said they wanted a chance to vote on the specifics of a lease to FPL after specifics were known.

A “no” vote, they said, would serve as a check on the City Council.

FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said Tuesday night her company was “very pleased” the referendum passed.

“The potential lease of the power plant site is a very important component of a potential sale,” Anderson said. “We look forward to working with the city’s transactional attorneys to finalize the purchase and sale agreement. Our goal is to have an agreement ready to present to the City Council by the end of the year.”

The best-case scenario put forth by FPL, assuming full cooperation from the city, sees a draft agreement with the city in place by the end of the year and a contract signed early next year.

It could be up to two years before the deal is closed, pending all regulatory approvals. Construction of transmission lines would be completed by 2016.  The utility plant on Indian River Boulevard and a substation would be moved off power plant property by 2017. Meanwhile, the city must navigate its way out of no less than nine agreements, including contracts with the Orlando Utilities Commission and the Florida Municipal Power Agency. The Florida Public Service Commission would need to become involved in the deal, and regulatory approval could delay the final steps of the transition for a year or more.