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Power agency to spend $100,000 spinning audit

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of February 26, 2015)

Blaming Vero Beach’s legal woes and Indian River County residents’ inability to resolve their disputes with Vero over high electric rates as the reason for the state audit of its organization, the Florida Municipal Power Agency board has voted to spend at least $100,000 to beef up its damage-control efforts by hiring public relations consultants and additional Tallahassee lobbyists.

“We’ve all been watching the news lately, and FMPA’s been in the news, and not in a good way,” said Chairman Bill Conrad, the mayor of Newberry, referring to newspaper and television reports of the FMPA’s lavish spending and risky investment practices, as revealed in findings by the Florida Auditor General.

Vero Beach City Councilman Randy Old was among only three members who voted against the new expenditure on PR consultants and lobbyists, which would raise wholesale rates about 14 cents per megawatt hour.

Instead, Old asked fellow board members to address the serious financial and control issues pointed out by the audit – rather than hiring lobbyists to spiff up the FMPA’s tarnished image around the state. To that end, the board also voted to have staff draft and bring back a request for qualifications for a consultant to look at its investment and management practices.

The FMPA meeting last Thursday was the second time in less than a week that the group had come together at the FMPA’s Orlando headquarters. With television cameras gone for the Thursday meeting and Vero Beach 32963 as the only media outlet covering the meeting in person, comments of the board members turned more aggressive than they had been the previous Monday, when members “played nice” in front of a full gallery of reporters and guests.

Conrad offered some advice to all the folks in Indian River County who can’t seem to get along, saying Vero and its adversaries need to throw out their “political agendas and personal goals” and break bread together.

“It’s important to all of us and our inter-government relationships that we all sit down together,” Conrad said. “When you get involved with lawsuits, there is no winner, and the big loser is the taxpayer.”

Larry Mattern of Kissimmee Utilities Authority had some advice for Indian River County. “You need to work with the problem you have and that’s your utility,” Mattern said.

“We’re not your enemy. We have a contract with your utility and that contract is not to be changed because it will do harm to all the other utilities,” he continued. “I’m just a little tired of us being framed as an enemy or a criminal. In fact, I’ve just spent our ratepayers’ money to keep this organization that serves our ratepayers well from being dismantled.”

Patrick Foster of the City of Leesburg Utilities, who voted against spending the money on PR, said, “It just galls me that we have to spend more public money to put a lobbyist in Tallahassee.” Another member said that those who attack the FMPA are really attacking 31 cities across the state of Florida.

After Old said he wished things weren’t so contentious, Conrad replied that he wished there was something the FMPA could do – short of letting Vero out of its contracts.

“I think the (Vero Beach) City Council has come to the realization that the idea of getting out of the FMPA is not going to happen, but I don’t think the community as a whole has,” Conrad said.

Conrad cautioned that regardless of a public relations effort, the public might not get the message.  “Rate setting and rates are a very complex process,” he said. “You can’t fight that battle informing the public and they’ll never understand. This room is where we need to solve the problems – not out in the media.”

On a break from the meeting, one FMPA member directly engaged County Commissioner Tim Zorc in a discussion about the Town of Indian River Shores vs. City of Vero Beach lawsuit.

Zorc, who has attended most FMPA meetings over the past couple of years, spoke from the podium about the agenda item for the additional lobbying services. Zorc named 10 professional lobbyists that legislative staffers in Tallahassee told him already lobby on behalf of the FMPA causes.

FMPA Board members bristled at Zorc’s comments, saying that the people he listed as lobbyists are all employed by the Florida Municipal Electric Association. FMEA Executive Director Barry Moline, a registered lobbyist, was one of the people on Zorc’s list.

FMPA officials, when asked about the overlap in membership and mission of the two organizations, refuse to acknowledge that the primary job of the FMEA is to act as the political and lobbying wing of the FMPA. The FMEA does so outside Florida’s Sunshine Laws under the guise of a trade organization. Municipal electric utilities pay millions in dues to the FMEA, but the FMEA’s view is the public has no right to know how it spends that money.