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Vero, Shores to meet in bid to avoid court battle over water-sewer utility

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of September 30, 2021)

Negotiating teams from the Town of Indian River Shores and the City of Vero Beach will meet in the coming weeks to try to avoid a federal court battle regarding Vero’s water-sewer utility, but talks aren’t likely to produce a settlement.

After the town’s legal counsel filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the city over Vero’s claim of a permanent service territory on the island that runs from Indian River Shores south to the county line, the Shores Town Council last week voted to launch state-mandated dispute resolution talks often called the “Chapter 164” process.

The number refers to chapter 164 of the Florida Statutes that forces municipalities or public agencies to try to resolve their differences out of court to save taxpayers money on legal fees.

This is the same process that is underway with Vero and Indian River County in a separate but related disagreement about Vero’s utility service territory in the unincorporated southern part of the barrier island.

In 1989, Vero and Indian River County divided up the county into two water-sewer service territories, based upon each entity’s capacity to serve those areas at the time. Vero’s long-established water-sewer territory was better positioned to expand on the barrier island north to Indian River Shores and south to The Moorings and beyond.

Thirty-two years later, Indian River Shores is looking at all of its options for water-sewer service and asserts the 1989 agreement can’t legally be used to create a permanent monopoly. Indian River Shores’ franchise agreement with Vero expires in 2027.

Shores officials argue that the legality of Vero’s claim can only be decided by the court and that the court should prevent the city from taking monopolistic actions.

Vero wants its water-sewer customers outside the city to acknowledge that the territories set in 1989 were meant to be permanent, regardless of the existence of a franchise agreement. City officials are confident the territorial document will withstand the legal challenge and the city will win in the end.

On Friday after the Shores town council meeting, Town Manager Jim Harpring, who is also a longtime attorney licensed to practice in Florida, sent a copy of the Shores resolution plus a cover letter to Vero City Manager Monte Falls asking to set up a meeting on Oct. 4, 5 or 14 at the Indian River Charter High School.

“The city’s allegation that the Market Allocation Agreement survives in perpetuity makes it particularly clear that it constitutes an unreasonable and unlawful restraint of trade, which deprives the town and its residents from obtaining the benefits of competitive service offerings for essential water, wastewater and reuse water services,” Harpring wrote to Falls.

As of press time, no meeting date had been set. Should the staff and attorneys be unable to resolve the matter, the next step would be a joint meeting of the Shores Town Council and the Vero Beach City

Council. Should that also not bear fruit, a mediator may be brought in to facilitate a settlement.