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Vero, county seem headed to mediation on utility territory

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of June 17, 2021)

The City of Vero Beach and Indian River County have one more chance to resolve their dispute about whether a 1989 territorial agreement can be enforced to keep Indian River Shores and South Beach water-sewer customers chained to Vero’s utility service until the end of time.

If the parties come out of a June 24 meeting not having budged from their corners – Vero saying it has a permanent territory and county officials saying the territory is not permanent – the two sides will enter formal mediation, with the next step being a joint meeting of all five Vero council members with all five county commissioners.

The Vero Beach City Council voted to launch the mediation process, outlined in Florida Statute, Section 164, as required whenever two municipalities have a dispute that could land in court.

Vero got upset when county officials agreed to devote staff time to help Indian River Shores complete a feasibility study of whether it would be possible and practical to terminate the town’s water-sewer service with Vero, and hook up to the county system in 2027 when the current franchise agreement expires.

County Attorney Dylan Reingold said the county is in the unenviable position of being sued by the city if it denies the permanent territory Vero claims or being sued by the Shores if it affirms the city’s claim to a permanent service territory.

Reingold wants to facilitate some sort of solution or settlement between Vero and the Shores, but city officials don’t seem excited about that idea.

County Administrator Jason Brown questions the validity of the territorial agreement because Indian River Shores did not have a say in it, but he made it clear that the county has enough on its plate with 65,000 water-sewer customers, and that he is not going after Vero’s customer base.

“We have not made any determination on the county’s part that we can or will serve the town,” Brown said.

Underlying this new dustup is the fact that Vero and the County have been unable to execute a new franchise agreement for South Barrier Island customers who live in the county but are served by Vero’s utility system.

Residents of the unincorporated South Beach area and the Moorings have been without a franchise agreement for several years, while continuing to receive service and utility bills from Vero.

“It really boils down to us coming to an agreement on whether or not that territorial map exists, or not,” Mayor Robbie Brackett said. “We believe it does. We believe it is in force.”

Figuring out what customers Vero will be serving going forward is urgent because the city is planning to build a new sewer plant at the airport and needs to know how much capacity will be required.

City Manager Monte Falls said the city has not received any complaints about its utility service that have not been resolved, and that Vero provides a quality service at a reasonable rate. City Attorney John Turner said the Shores has benefited greatly from being in the city’s water-sewer utility territory and having the ability to expand and develop as a town.
Indian River Shores Town Manager Jim Harpring said last week that the town will be monitoring the dispute resolution process between the city and the county closely and may find a way to participate in the talks. Should the case go to court, he said, the Shores would formally file to intervene, or join the lawsuit.