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Shores' position on electric not same as county's

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of November 13, 2014)

Indian River Shores this week sought to put some distance between its lawsuit aimed at extricating the town from Vero electric, and the County’s separate effort to escape via a different route at the Florida Public Service Commission.

The county’s petition for a PSC ruling clarifying what the Board of County Commissioners can and cannot do once its 30-year franchise with Vero expires in March 2017 has met with stiff opposition – not only from Vero, but also from investor-owned utilities and even Florida Power and Light.  The utilities all reject the idea that service territories are anything other than “permanent.”

Apparently anticipating a negative recommendation from PSC staff to the county’s petition challenging its territorial agreement with Vero electric, the Shores emphasized that it has based its lawsuit on totally different principles that don’t “undermine the PSC’s jurisdiction over territorial agreements.

“While I’m fully supportive of the county’s efforts to protect its residents,” said Shores Mayor Brian Barefoot, “I think it’s important for our community to understand why the county’s filing with the PSC is different than, and will have no direct impact on, the lawsuit that our town filed in circuit court. 

Since the City of Vero Beach is wholly encompassed within Indian River County, it would be impossible for the County to tell Vero it couldn’t operate within the county, so Vero’s territory would essentially need to be redrawn to carve out the unincorporated areas of the county – to confine Vero to its city limits – for the county to contract with FPL or another provider for its nearly 20,000 customers.

“Although the central issue affecting our residents is the same – excessively high electric rates – the town and county are separate and distinct legal entities, and have made separate and distinct filings in separate and distinct venues under separate and distinct legal principles.

“Our lawsuit is based on the fundamental principle that our town is a sovereign municipality that has unique and broad powers when it comes to the provision of electric utility services to our residents.  In fact, the law that created our town expressly grants us the right to ‘furnish any and all local public services, including electricity’ to our residents, either through direct provision of service or by contracting with other utilities.”

He noted that under Florida law, a municipality like Vero Beach “is barred from providing ‘extra-territorial’ utility service within another municipality’s boundaries without the other’s permission.”

In other words, Vero Beach needs the Shores permission to provide electric service to Shores’ residents.

“Our lawsuit puts the City (of Vero Beach) on notice that once our franchise agreement expires on November 6, 2016, the City will no longer have such permission,” Barefoot said.

The Shores and Vero have for the past couple of months been engaged in a state-mandated conflict resolution process required before the town’s lawsuit actually gets underway in Circuit Court. While the county also has participated in the conflict resolution sessions, it has not filed a lawsuit.

At the last of these conflict resolution meetings on Oct. 28, Barefoot said he again reminded Vero that the Shores intends “to exercise our right to provide electricity to Town residents when our franchise agreement expires” unless Vero completes the sale of its electric system to FPL or brings its rates for non-resident customers to long-term parity with FPL.

“Our Town’s position in our lawsuit is not unprecedented,” Barefoot said. “In fact, the courts and the PSC have recognized that a municipality like our town can exercise its rights to provide electricity to its residents without running afoul of existing PSC-approved territorial agreements.”