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Vero approves extra $200,000 for emergency beach repairs


Hurricane Irma’s appetite for Vero’s dunes at Conn Beach and Humiston Beach Park, on the heels of her sand-chomping predecessor Matthew in 2016, is proving to be costly for Vero Beach taxpayers.

The City Council last Tuesday approved a $200,000 change order expanding the scope of a post-Matthew dune repair project to shore up those two beaches, even though there is no money in the 2017-18 budget for the repairs and the expenditure will eat up nearly a quarter of the city’s emergency fund.

The matter was approved on the council’s consent agenda with no discussion, bringing the total cost of emergency sand for Matthew and Irma up to $272,000. When asked his feelings about spending unbudgeted money for emergency sand, Mayor Harry Howle said he would prefer not to spend $200,000 on beach replenishment, but that it is a necessary to retain one of the top amenities and biggest tourist attractions in Vero.

“Moving forward I’d like to see the County and the City working in tandem [to fix the beaches],” Howle said, referring to ongoing efforts by the city to get bed-tax money from the county for beach repair.

The Conn Beach boardwalk routinely becomes unsafe after a tropical storm or series of rough Nor’easters chew into the dunes, and scientists say beaches within Vero’s city limits are some of the most critically eroded in the county. It will take 3,560 tons of sand trucked onto the beach from an inland sand mine to replenish the dunes and get the boardwalks and dune crossings ready for another storm season this summer.

Permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection have been secured and the beach repair work will begin immediately so work can be completed by March 1, when all equipment will have to be off the beach ahead of sea turtle nesting season.

There’s no money in the 2017-18 budget for these repairs, and Vero does not share in the funding Indian River County receives from various sources – including the bed tax – to pay for dune and beach repair projects.

City Manager Jim O’Connor said the money would come out of the city’s $827,509 emergency reserve fund set aside for things like hurricane damage. Approximately 75 percent of the costs may eventually be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but “the allocation of FEMA funds for dune restoration is not certain at this time,” according to O’Connor.

Operating on a separate track, the county is scheduled to refurbish the city’s beaches, deemed Sector 5 in the county’s beach plan, in late 2018 or early 2019, provided that funding from the state is available and the project is deemed eligible. In the meantime, the city is on its own.

Vero is prohibited from using tax funds for large-scale beach replenishment such as the county has planned due to a 1980s-era referendum. Those who oppose beach replenishment mostly object to paying dearly for what they deem to be a futile fight against nature, but oceanfront residents and businesses rely upon regular influxes of sand to protect property and promote a healthy tourist economy.

Howle is the most recent in a series of Vero mayors to try to get funding out of Indian River County to help pay for repair of city beaches.

Previous mayors Jay Kramer and Dick Winger took an adversarial approach with the county over the bed tax, but Howle said he’s trying to accomplish the same goal via diplomacy. “It certainly is worth noting the vast majority of tourism dollars come from COVB.  Being sure Vero gets a fair shake is always something we keep in mind and would like to explore further in the future.”

The Vero Beach Lifeguard Association 2017 Annual Report published earlier this month states that more than 755,000 people flocked to Vero’s city beaches during guarded hours last year, with estimates for total visitor count topping one million people. Beach attendance was up 8 percent from 2016, and was the highest since 2012, providing a strong boost for local businesses.

One reason city beaches are so popular is that Vero not only pays to “groom” its five major public beaches from November to April, when it’s not peak turtle-nesting season, but also contracts with workers to comb the beaches for trash.