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Is staff still secretly hoping to keep sewer plant on lagoon?


Is Vero Beach city staff ignoring the long-standing desire of the city and its neighbors to move the sewer plant off the Indian River Lagoon as soon as is feasible? Or are they just playing the tried-and-true game of delay, defer and deflect?

Moving the plant off the river has been the “marching orders” from the City Council to the staff for the past seven or eight years. It’s something the vast majority of area residents – both island and mainland residents – have been eagerly anticipating, for environmental and aesthetic reasons.

Removing it would complete the clearing of Vero’s riverfront of unsightly utility equipment, paving the way for the city to redevelop Centennial Place as a park or enter into a public/private partnership to create a mixed-use riverside project with restaurants, docks and other amenities.

The fact that the City of Vero Beach has hired consultants to plan and estimate the cost of various options for modernizing and extending the life of the existing sewer plant so it can stay on the river seems surreal. So does the idea of residents and visitors someday strolling Centennial Place in view of and downwind of the sewer plant.

But that was exactly what was discussed last week during a meeting of the Vero Utilities Committee.

The expected fireworks at the meeting were to be about a Florida Department of Environmental Protection two-day inspection of the city’s water system that found leaks, corrosion, missing and faulty equipment, and described the drinking water supply as being in “pitiful condition.”

But Utilities Director Rob Bolton scoffed at the report, calling it a “housekeeping matter” and gave no real explanation as to why the report was not discussed by the City Council, treating the inspection like it was too insignificant to warrant concern.

Then the committee moved on to a presentation by Bolton and the city’s two consulting firms about analysis being done on what to do about the riverfront sewer plant.

Mayor Val Zudans said Friday he feels Bolton is “very competent” and supports fully vetting both options – keeping the plant on the river or moving wastewater operations to the Vero Beach Regional Airport – because the taxpayers deserve to know what the cost would be for each of those choices.

Though Zudans campaigned for City Council two years ago on, in part, a promise to move the sewer plant off the river, he said Friday “the City Council never voted on it, there’s nothing in writing, no resolution.”

Indian River Shores Vice Mayor Bob Auwaerter, the Shores’ representative on Vero’s Utility Commission, said he was dismayed not only at Bolton shrugging off the negative FDEP inspection of the drinking water system, but also at the consultants’ lack of solid numbers on either option for the future of the sewer plant.

Rough numbers batted around were $26-$30 million to revamp the plant in place for another 15 or so years of life, or possibly $50 million to construct a state-of-the-art sewer plant at the airport and decommission the riverfront plant.

Auwaerter said he’s not opposed to having clear financial data of a renovate-in-place solution for comparison, but he does not consider keeping the plant on the river a real option for the city.

He does think utility ratepayers – who reside both inside and outside the city of Vero Beach – should know what they are committing to in terms of debt for building a new plant at the airport.

He said that information would be helpful as the city considers the pros and cons of a third option – consolidating Vero’s water and wastewater systems with Indian River County as an alternative to keeping what has been called “the toilet on the lagoon” or spending $50 million or more on a new plant near the airport.

Zudans said he’s growing impatient about seeing the results of the consultant’s work.

“I’ll still be here [on the City Council] for another couple of months; we have time to vote on what we want to do and to get moving on this,” Zudans said. “It would probably be controversial and critics would say we should wait for the new council to vote after the election, but it’s not like this is a new issue. We’ve been dealing with this for a long time.”

The delay that this study is causing could be deliberate, as Bolton indicated he might be shopping for a newer, better City Council to make the final decision.

When Utilities Commission member Mark Mucher correctly pointed out that moving the sewer plant off the river has been a long-standing political goal of the city, Bolton replied, “That’s what this City Council wants, but the next City Council might want something different.”

The third option of dismantling the riverfront plant and joining forces with Indian River County Utilities should also be analyzed, Zudans said, but to him it is a non-starter.

“Consolidating our water-sewer utility with the county’s utility to me doesn’t really accomplish anything; it’s all still being run by the government,” Zudans said. “There are no efficiencies or economy of scale, and no evidence that rates would go down for Vero residents.”

Zudans said Indian River County has the capacity to handle Vero utility customers now, but not to accommodate growth. Zudans was concerned that Vero ratepayers would get charged for upgrade that would be needed down the road to the county system. Plus, he said, the county is not willing to offer Vero a fair price for the water-sewer utility. “They will not pay the city anything for our customers,” Zudans said.

After fewer than two years in office, Zudans seems to have bought into many of the city staff’s arguments, sounding much more like former mayor Jay Kramer than the firebrand reformer he seemed when he was elected in 2017.   

Former mayor Pilar Turner said she was not surprised when she read the Vero Beach 32963 report last week about the unflattering FDEP inspection, but she was shocked to find out Friday that the city staff, instead of working full-steam ahead to move the sewer plant off the river, is seriously weighing keeping the sewer plant in place and wasting utility ratepayer money studying the option of renovating it.

“No, that was never an option to keep the wastewater treatment plant on the Indian River Lagoon. The plan was to keep it running and maintained, but to dismantle it when the new plant at the airport was built,” Turner said.  “Mayor Zudans is correct, we did not vote on moving the plant off the lagoon, but it was a strong desire of the city council made very clear to the staff, going all the way back to the GAI Consultants optimization study.”

That study, completed in late 2011, said Vero’s sewer plant had another 12 or 13 more good years in it. Over the past eight years, the city has made some upgrades to the plant, but Zudans admitted that it’s not the most efficient or environmentally friendly operation.

“There are much better ways of doing the treatment,” Zudans said, adding that Bolton has told him the city could implement new technologies that could make the utility even more profitable for the city.

That “profit” to the city is a big sticking point for Auwaerter, who complained that even as the DEP inspection shows a general lack of maintenance and state of disrepair in the system, the city is transferring $2 million annually to its general fund from the water sewer utility – even more in administrative transfers to support city hall functions than was transferred out prior to the electric sale. With fewer employees and city departments, the water-sewer utility now has to pony up a larger share.

“Since the electric utility was sold to Florida Power & Light, the water-sewer utility is saving $300,000 annually on its electric bill,” Zudans explained. “That $300,000 is now coming back to the city.”

The ongoing practice of skimming millions from city utilities partially fueled the campaign to sell off Vero electric. City staff railed against that, spinning tales of financial doom and the city being so broke it might even lose its police department.

As long as a riverfront sewer plant exists as part of the deal, Indian River County will not bargain with Vero for taking over water-sewer operations. Moving the sewer plant off the river opens the door to consolidation of water-sewer utilities with the county.

With most of the city staff dead set against that option, it’s no shock they are dragging their feet on potentially losing yet another cash cow.