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Time to start thinking about next Vero council election

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of August 5, 2021)

Next year’s Vero Beach City Council will direct the planned riverfront development and will likely determine how the city resolves legal disputes with Indian River County and the Town of Indian River Shores over utility matters, so it’s important that there could be two open seats to fill in November.

This year’s election could have a big financial impact on residents and businesses in another way, as well. If two people are elected who join Mayor Robbie Brackett in opposing the recently approved stormwater utility, that tax could be eliminated in 2022.

Only one person, Vero Beach Young Republicans founder Taylor Dingle, has filed pre-qualifying paperwork to open a campaign account so far, but according to Vero City Clerk Tammy Vock there’s plenty of time for others to join the fray over the next few weeks.

“The qualifying period is Aug. 19 through Sept. 3; it closes at 12 noon that day,” Vock said last week.

The two seats up for re-election are currently held by Vice Mayor Rey Neville and former mayor Dick Winger, who was appointed in April to fill the remaining seven months of Joe Graves’ two-year council term after Graves resigned.

During interviews with applicants to fill Graves’ seat, Winger publicly stated that he would not run for re-election. “I see it as taking an empty seat at the table for six months. I’m 83 years old. I have no intention of running in November or ever running again.”

Winger touted his lack of political ambition at this point in his life as a reason to select him, because the council wouldn’t be giving an advantage to someone who intended to run in November.

But since assuming Graves’ seat, Winger has gotten embroiled in several matters that will not be resolved this year, including the city’s push to get a slice of the bed tax money collected in Indian River County, even if it means increasing the tax.

Winger could theoretically advocate for that funding as a private citizen, but a continued seat on the city council would give him a more powerful platform from which to drive this issue.

Council members have been petitioning the county for a cut of the bed tax money for years, since a large portion of it is collected from beachfront hotels in the city limits, but those efforts have been met with resistance from the Indian River County Tourist Development Council.

Winger’s new idea is that the bed tax could be increased so Vero could get funding from additional tax revenue without taking money away from the agencies and projects getting it now.

Neville, 79, a long-time Central Beach resident, has mentioned in public that he has experienced long-term effects after a COVID-19 infection in June 2020, but he regularly attends council meetings and actively participates in policy discussions.

Since Neville’s health has not kept him from fulfilling the duties of his office, it is possible he will run for re-election despite any COVID-related health problems. In 2019, Neville ran on the slogan, “Preserve our values, shape our future.”

Both Winger and Neville advocated for increasing the property tax rate during recent budget talks, but that proposal did not gain the consensus of the majority of the council. Two new council members who were fiscally conservative would give Brackett more potential allies in his efforts to keep city spending under control and taxes low.

Dingle might be that person, according to his campaign statement. “Vero is at a critical juncture right now. We have experienced an unimaginable global pandemic that impacted city residents and local businesses. Instead of imposing a new tax, we should be rallying behind those afflicted,” Dingle said.

Regarding Three Corners project, Dingle said he opposes apartments or condos being built on the site. “Vero has an incredible opportunity to develop an area for all residents that could impact the community for the next 100 years.

“In order to manage these issues effectively, we will need a good balance of experience and new ideas on City Council,” Dingle said, adding that he has a unique perspective as a younger resident who isn’t retired: “My generation will live with the consequences from the decisions being made today and I hope to build on Vero’s strong foundation with a new perspective.”

Four other people who applied for Graves’ seat and were interviewed are seen as potential candidates in November: former councilman Brian Heady; marketing and management consultant Joe Cotugno; defense contractor and retired law enforcement officer Christopher Drake; and businessman and former school principal Peter Benedict II.