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South Island residents organize to gain clout in utility discussions

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of July 15, 2021)

South Beach residents who live in the unincorporated county don’t have a town council or mayor to represent their interests in utility matters, but they still want a seat at the table when major decisions are contemplated.

A case in point is Indian River County’s proposal to settle a utility dispute with Vero Beach by signing a new franchise agreement with the city to continue providing water-sewer service to south island neighborhoods.

For the past four years, while Vero has served south island residents with water and sewer without a franchise agreement because the county and city couldn’t agree on the contract language, the residents have still been paying a 6 percent franchise fee. And they still have utility rates and bills they can’t understand.

While living in this utility limbo, a loose coalition of residents who live south of the Vero city limits recently gathered to research water-sewer utility issues as they relate specifically to the history of legal agreements and ownership of utility assets in The Moorings and surrounding communities.

The goal is to know where they stand and what their rights and options are. The group includes people with backgrounds in corporate finance, municipal utilities, engineering and the law, and they’ve built on 15 years of groundwork laid by retired utility activist Dr. Steve Faherty, who advises the group behind the scenes.

They’ve met with both county officials and Vero Beach Mayor Robbie Brackett to talk about what the future might look like should the unincorporated south barrier island remain on Vero’s water-sewer system. This week they were on the Board of County Commissioners agenda to outline their goals.

Doug DeMuth, a chemical engineer and Sandpointe resident, requested time to speak to the county commission. DeMuth said his group represents about 71 percent of south barrier island residents, which translates into 1,600 households paying water and/or sewer bills to the City of Vero Beach. Now in the data-gathering phase, the group aims to bring back utility service options to the residents, and to explain the risks and rate impacts of each option.

DeMuth said his group was not blindsided by the county’s proposal in June to commit South Beach residents to county rates until 2027, then Vero rates with limited annual increases, and finally uncontrolled Vero rates starting in 2032.

“We talked to [county officials] ... about it a month or so ago and those things were discussed, but we did not agree to anything,” DeMuth said of a meeting with County Administrator Jason Brown, County Attorney Dylan Reingold and Utilities Director Vincent Burke.

“What we want is a voice in our future on a number of things.” DeMuth said. “We want long-term, transparent, simple, comprehensive rates for services provided. We want written instruments, documents and agreements that are clear and fulfilled.”

DeMuth currently is trying to get solid cost and rate projections from both Vero and the county, including the costs of complying with the Clean Waterways Act and costs of building any new capacity at water and wastewater treatment plants.

DeMuth said he wants everything in writing so no parties can go back on verbal promises. “When personnel change, the agreements can’t change,” he said.

While the matter of Vero’s claim to a permanent service territory that includes the south island area is still in dispute, the group is looking at what it would take to get service from other providers – both public and private.

They also would like an up-to-date cost estimate on connecting to Indian River County Utilities. If South Beach ends up hitched to Vero for another 15 or 30 years, they want the county to stick up for their rights as customers.

“If the county continues to use service providers like the City of Vero Beach, we expect the county to support residents of our area in any challenges or disagreements,” DeMuth said.

He and group member Laurie Barkhorn plan to ask county officials to help them track down documents going back to the development of the south barrier island and the first utility pipes laid to service customers there.