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Stephen Faherty: A tireless fighter in electric battles

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of January 26, 2023)

Stephen Joseph Faherty Sr., 83, a driving force in the long battle to free the barrier island – and ultimately all of Vero Beach – from the outrageous bills generated by Vero Electric, died last week after a multi-year battle with lung disease.

Faherty was a great man with what seemed like a rather simple, and singular goal.

All he wanted was to live long enough to be able to walk down his driveway in The Moorings, open his mailbox and find an electric bill that wasn’t inflated to subsidize Vero’s bloated city government.

Steve achieved that goal in 2019, after a dozen-year struggle, at significant cost to his own health.

Steve’s obituary doesn’t begin to describe what he powered through every day to forward the cause of affordable electric rates for all of his neighbors.

For the past decade, Faherty was dependent upon oxygen to some degree – at first as a supplement via a concentrator he wore in a pack. But soon he relied upon oxygen tanks for every single breath.

That would have stopped most people from working so hard, and from speaking in public, but Faherty’s dogged determination never waned, not even during the two-year “dark ages” from 2013 to 2015 when an anti-sale Vero Beach City Council was in power and just about everyone else had lost hope of ever selling the utility. Faherty’s unwavering zeal kept the cause going.

Almost weekly, hundreds of people got a “Utility Update” email blast from Faherty outlining the issues of the day, and actions to take to further the effort to sell the electric utility.

He drafted numerous proposed utility regulations to be considered by the Florida House and Senate, and he also authored what might have been the first-ever citizen-filed complaint about representation and rates to be docketed with the Florida Public Service Commission.

He addressed the Indian River Board of County Commissioners more than 40 times, and the Vero Beach City Council as often as permitted to speak before being gaveled-down under the three-minute time limit.

The first major surgery that took Faherty out of commission for a few weeks was in late 2009. He hated not being able to attend key meetings in person at a pivotal point when the city council invited FPL to start the conversation about purchasing Vero Electric. So he appointed local CPA Glenn Heran to keep the pressure on while he recovered.

Building on Faherty’s research, and his staunch “No Taxation Without Representation” slogan that pointed out the millions of dollars Vero was skimming off the electric utility to keep city property taxes artificially low, Heran had built a financial model that the duo used in their “road show” presentations to every HOA and civic group who would listen.

Heran’s hypothetical model showed that the community as a whole would be better off after the sale – even if the City of Vero Beach gave FPL the utility for free.

Heran also represented Faherty and his ideas at legislative and regulatory meetings in Tallahassee when Faherty couldn’t make the trip. Faherty’s penchant for digging into weedy legislation and Heran’s financial skills complemented each other perfectly.

After a few days to process Faherty’s passing, Heran said of his friend and mentor, “Steve was intensely smart, but it was his unfailing tenacity and courage which carried us through the 12-year fight.

“Ultimately none was more important to the issue than Steve,” Heran said. “He was the origin and the soul of the battle to free us from Vero Beach Electric.”

In early 2019, after the FPL sale closed, Faherty was presented with a key to the city and he announced he was bowing out of politics, but he kept on working behind the scenes, researching and networking about what he saw as the looming problem of soon-to-be soaring water-sewer rates under Vero Beach Utilities.

He was one of those South Beach residents living outside city limits with no electoral say over his utility bills. He was still being taxed with no representation – Vero transfers about $2 million from water-sewer bills to its general fund and South Beach residents pay roughly 20 percent of that.

Working behind the scenes, Faherty would still grant the occasional phone interview on background, with the noticeable sound of his ever-present oxygen being gasped between sentences. He was told to slow down, take it easy and not get so excited countless times, but the quest always came first.

In 2021, Faherty was still scheduling meetings with elected officials to talk about protecting the South Beach customers from being charged whatever water-sewer rates the city deemed appropriate.

That’s when Sandpointe resident Doug DeMuth encountered Faherty.

“I met Steve at his house and he spent two hours toting these oxygen tanks around and explaining what he wanted to do,” DeMuth. “He hadn’t backed off on the water-sewer issue.”

Faherty’s office at the height of the electric fight was strewn with banker’s boxes full of research, but after the utility sale closed, he’d whittled it down to one stuffed box of papers.

“He told me he had meetings with the county commissioners and I was welcome to come. But I told him that if he was looking for somebody to take all this on, that’s not me right now,” DeMuth said.

Faherty called DeMuth a couple days before the meeting and told him he didn’t think he could make the meeting due to his health situation, urging DeMuth to go in his stead. “He said, I have all the documents you need,” DeMuth said.

Over time, as his health failed, Faherty turned the remaining box of precious research, legal documents, spreadsheets and proposals, over to DeMuth, who worked with his own homeowners’ association and neighboring communities to raise awareness about the South Beach utility situation.

But a week before Faherty died, he left DeMuth a voicemail saying, “I’m in the hospital but I’ll be getting out and as soon as I do I will put together a proposal on a special taxing district to tie us to the county.”

Former Vero mayor Pilar Turner fondly remembered Faherty from her time as an officer of the Taxpayers Association and then serving on the City Council.

“Steve worked tirelessly to get fair electric rates for Indian River County. How lucky we are to have known such a courageous gentleman,” Turner said.

School Board member Brian Barefoot served as Indian River Shores mayor in the final years of the FPL sale effort.

“Dr. Steve Faherty truly built grassroots support for selling the electric utility,” Barefoot said.  “He made us realize the tangible economic possibilities for our whole community,” Barefoot said. “I think I speak for every resident of Indian River Shores in expressing my gratitude for Steve’s vision, leadership and perseverance in making us all FPL customers today.