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Council to discuss options for moving sewer plant off lagoon


Later this month, the City Council again will discuss turning over Vero Beach’s municipal water and sewage systems to the county as a possible alternative to spending more than $30 million to build a new wastewater treatment plant at the airport.

City Councilman Harry Howle said last week he plans to put the matter on the panel’s agenda later this month.

“When the topic was brought up a few years ago, there wasn’t much interest on the city’s part,” Howle said. “But now that we’re talking seriously about moving the wastewater treatment plant off the lagoon, this could be a way to fast-track the process.

“Certainly, it’s an option we should consider,” he added. “The alternative is to borrow $30 million to $50 million to build a new facility.”

Recently retired city manager Jim O’Connor said it probably would take two years to build a new plant at the airport.

Howle, who has announced he will not seek re-election, said he has had informal conversations with County Commissioner Bob Solari to gauge the county’s potential interest in the city’s water and sewage systems.

Solari said last week he has no interest in discussing such a transaction with the city until the council decides it wants to turn over the systems. He said the city would need to initiate the conversation.

“The appeal is a lot less than it was 10 years ago,” said Solari, a city resident. “My understanding is that the city has deferred a significant amount of maintenance on the systems, so we’d have to do a complete assessment to see what’s there.”

County Administrator Jason Brown said he has “many concerns” about Vero Beach’s systems. Still, Solari said he believes turning them over to the county would be the city’s “best option” because providing separate municipal systems is unnecessary.

“Water and sewer service is the same, no matter who does it,” Solari said. “It’s not something that sets Vero Beach apart as a wonderful place to live.”

However, Solari remains skeptical the City Council will simply give away the systems – because the city, which charges higher rates than the county, relies on them to generate revenue.

“I put a lot of effort into this when it came up years ago, and they said we were under-valuing their water utility,” Solari said. “That was BS. We’re not in the business of gouging our customers. We’re interested in keeping the county’s rates as low as possible.”

Solari said the county would need to “build more capacity” to absorb the city’s water customers, but it could accommodate their sewage treatment needs.

Vero Beach Mayor Val Zudans said he’s “totally open” to re-exploring the possibility of the county taking over the city’s water and sewage systems, but he’s not convinced the change would benefit city residents.

“We should talk about this as a council and open a conversation with the county,” Zudans said. “Is it better for city residents to let the county provide these services? Or do we build a new plant?”

One of the advantages of building a new facility, Zudans said, is that new plants are equipped with the latest technology, run more efficiently, cost less to operate and are more environmentally friendly.

Zudans said the city purposely deferred maintenance on the wastewater treatment plant, which was built in 1977 and will be paid off in 2022, because there was no reason to invest in a facility that soon will be dismantled.

“I can say with certainty: We’re going to move the plant off the lagoon,” Howle said. “It’s just a matter of which path we take. That’s what I want us to talk about.”