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Vero considers legal action against county in Shores dispute

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of April 29, 2021)

The City of Vero Beach is considering legal action against Indian River County to enforce what the city views as its permanent water-sewer service territory as set forth in a 1989 agreement – a provision that would keep the Town of Indian River Shores on the city utility system, even unwillingly.

The dustup began after the Indian River Board of County Commissioners voted to allow county staff to cooperate with engineering consultants the town hired to find out whether or not it would be feasible for the Shores to obtain water-sewer service from the county in October 2027, when the town’s franchise agreement with Vero ends.

Vero Mayor Robbie Brackett says the city has three separate legal opinions defending the city’s right to not lose utility customers to the county because a 1989 agreement lays out which areas are to be served by Vero, and which areas are to be served by Indian River County – with any proposed changes requiring Vero’s permission.

Vero Beach 32963 requested copies of the three legal opinions last week, and received three documents late Monday.

But only one of these opinion letters – penned in 2012 by the city’s utility attorney, Thomas Cloud of the Gray Robinson law firm, detailing the city’s claim to a “permanent, exclusive right to serve” unincorporated South Beach communities with water-sewer service regardless of the presence of a valid franchise agreement – seems to specifically boost Vero’s position.

The other two letters from Holland and Knight and Nabors-Giblin law firms have been put forth by the Shores to bolster its own arguments on the 1989 territory document.

When the Shores re-upped with Vero Beach in 2012, the new agreement was the result of a competitive process in which Vero Beach Utilities and Indian River County Utilities both pitched for the Shores’ utility business.

Both Vero and the county submitted written proposals, and Vero and county staffers both made presentations touting the reasons why the Shores Town Council should choose them over their rival utility.

Vero’s then-City Manager Jim O’Connor brokered a deal to keep the Shores in Vero’s fold by matching county rates.

Vero won the 2012 competition but the process raises the question why Vero thought it needed to compete for the Shores business if the city had an inviolable service territory. The whole process was carried out in public, with plenty of opportunities for Vero to show the 1989 territorial agreement and stop the county’s bid.

When asked why Vero did not exert the 1989 territorial rights to prevent Indian River County from going after the Shores’ utility business in 2012, City Manager Monte Falls said, “I do not know if the 1989 territorial agreement came up in the negotiations with the town as I was not the city manager at the time.”

Brackett said he and Falls met last week with County Administrator Jason Brown, and based upon their talk, Brown realized that the county is in the wrong and that the county will drop the idea of potentially serving Indian River Shores with water, sewer and reuse water.

Brown confirmed that he met with Brackett and Falls, but said there is no action to back down from.

Since Brown was the county’s Director of Management and Budget in 2012, he was involved in the county’s pitch to serve the Shores with its water-sewer utilities.

Brown had no answers as to why Vero is raising this objection now. “I asked Monte the same thing. This never came up in 2012,” Brown said.