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Cleveland Clinic set to increase minimum wage
week of February 20, 2019

Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital last week announced a hike in its minimum wage to $13 an hour effective March 29, with a goal of stepping up to $15 “over time.” The move will be a big help to the lowest-paid tier of the Vero hospital’s 2,000 employees but could cause a ripple effect throughout the county and the region that might be problematic for some businesses. The increase, which includes employees at Cleveland Clinic hospitals in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties, could cause the nursing pool other healthcare enterprises draw from to shrink as Cleveland lures workers away from nursing homes and assisted living facilities, not to mention competing hospitals. The move comes more than a year after an announcement from Cleveland Clinic headquarters in Ohio that promised a $15 minimum wage by 2020 for the “overwhelming majority” of employees systemwide. Workers in Cleveland Clinic’s Ohio hospitals and clinics got raises to $14 an hour in January 2019, within weeks of the announcement. Cleveland Clinic’s hospital in Westin, Florida, also began phasing in a higher minimum wage and already is at $15 per hour. READ FULL STORY

Marine Bank sees growth in assets, loans and profits
week of February 20, 2019

Marine Bank & Trust – the only community bank headquartered on the Vero Beach barrier island – had another successful year in 2019, with growth across the board in banking operations and record profits for its shareholders. Between Dec. 31, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2019, the bank’s assets grew by 6 percent, up from $270 million to $286 million, and total deposits increased by 5 percent, from $245 million to $257 million. Loans outstanding grew 11 percent, from $218 million to $242 million. A healthy economy was a factor in the growth, as were the consolidation and name changes other banks in the Vero Beach community have undergone in the past year. But as Marine Bank & Trust President and CEO Bill Penney put it: “You’ve still got to perform, still have to go earn people’s business.” Penney said that is exactly what his team did throughout 2019, as the bank closed 298 loans totaling $113.6 million, including $50 million in commercial loans that allowed 132 small businesses grow and create new jobs, $62.5 million in mortgage loans that helped 166 customers purchase or refinance their homes, and more than $1 million in consumer loans. READ FULL STORY

AT&T gets stronger signal than Verizon off Shores cell tower
week of February 20, 2019

The Indian River Shores cell tower – which took more than a contentious decade to put in place – has not been a silver-bullet solution to spotty Verizon reception in the town. Town officials, residents and the public safety department have noticed the difference between AT&T service and Verizon since Verizon joined AT&T on the tower last summer, with AT&T’s signal coming in stronger. Verizon was the first provider to execute a lease, incurring payments for nearly a year while technical and equipment delays dragged out the timeline. Verizon occupies the coveted top spot on the 115-foot “monopine” stealth tower, a position that is supposed to be the best in terms of signal strength and coverage distance. AT&T signed its contract second and occupies the next-highest spot on the tower but moved much faster getting transmission equipment installed to begin testing its live signal in September 2018. Public Safety Chief Rich Rosell, like many Shores residents, did not wait around for Verizon to play catch-up. When he had the chance, Rosell switched his department to AT&T’s service. READ FULL STORY

Changes coming to bridge intersection
week of February 20, 2019

The new speed sign that flashes at southbound motorists on Indian River Boulevard is just the first sign of changes coming to the intersection at the western end of the Barber Bridge where a college rower was killed in a crash in January. A new traffic signal with a flashing yellow light to caution southbound drivers to be aware of northbound traffic before turning left onto the bridge will be installed within the next two weeks, state officials say. Along with the new traffic signal, permanent flashing signs alerting motorists of their speed will be installed by May near the intersection, which is under Florida Department of Transportation jurisdiction. Vegetation at the intersection will be trimmed so it won’t obscure motorists’ view of the road and other vehicles, and Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey said traffic enforcement at the intersection will intensify in coming weeks. Depending on the impact of those changes, the southbound left turn lane could be lengthened, and other additional traffic signals installed, to reduce collisions at the accident-prone intersection. READ FULL STORY

Retired CIA leader writes about 32 years with agency
week of February 20, 2019

The headline-grabbing chapters of American history that occurred during Riomar resident Richard Kerr’s 32 years with the Central Intelligence Agency include the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, the taking of American hostages by Iran, U.S. bombing raids in Libya, the breakup of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, and Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. Kerr, who served as the CIA's deputy director for three years under President George H.W. Bush and as the Agency's acting director for three months in 1991, recounts all of these events in his newly published book, “Unclassified: My Life Before, During and After the CIA,” which was published by Rand-Smith and is available on Amazon. Some of his most compelling work, though, was done after he left the CIA, when he headed a small team that assessed and critiqued the intelligence produced before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. That’s covered in Kerr’s memoir, too. “We actually wrote three reports, but only the first one was unclassified,” Kerr, now 84, said of his team’s four-month review, which was authorized by then-CIA Director George Tenet and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. READ FULL STORY

Accused reality TV show fraudster will likely battle cancer in jail
week of February 20, 2019

The criminal case against accused reality television show fraudster Christopher Delaney has been fraught with plot twists. Just as it appeared Delaney might get his bail reduced so he could get out of jail for cancer treatments, prosecutors filed additional theft and fraud charges, adding $255,000 to the required bond. Delaney, 64, was arrested on July 3 after a lengthy FBI investigation into alleged crimes dating back several years. A long-time financial advisor in New York, Delaney injected himself into Vero’s wealthy social circles by giving wealth management seminars. He was initially charged with taking a half million dollars from investors under the guise of producing a reality television show called “JetSet” through his barrier-island-based company. According to prosecutors and FBI agents, Delaney diverted the money to his personal use. The funds invested with Delaney represented much of the life savings of two out-of-state clients and Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans wanted prosecution of the case moved up on the docket because Delaney’s alleged victims are both elderly. READ FULL STORY

Fourth judge may finally rule in Harbor Branch lawsuit
week of February 20, 2019

The fate of Harbor Branch Foundation’s $72 million endowment is now in the hands of Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Metzger, the fourth judge assigned to the high-stakes case that pits the Foundation against Florida Atlantic University. According to court records, FAU and the Foundation have filed a flurry of motions and countermotions during the past several months, arguing over whether the Foundation’s lawsuit against FAU should be dismissed. The lawsuit was filed in 2017 to stop FAU from taking control of the multimillion endowment, which is used to support marine research. FAU’s central argument seeking dismissal is that according to state statutes, the University, as the Foundation’s “direct support organization,” legally has the right to oversee the Foundation’s operations and use of its endowment funds. FAU attorney Richard Mitchell argues that state statue supersedes a “Memo of Understanding” previously signed by both parties that stated the Foundation would continue to operate financially independent from FAU. Metzger ruled on Sept. 25 that she would consider FAU’s argument after providing Foundation attorney Joseph Galardi, an opportunity to argue against the dismissal. READ FULL STORY

Vero city attorney seeks to unmask anonymous plaintiff filing lawsuits
week of February 20, 2019

Vero Beach City Attorney John Turner doesn’t want to wait until he goes to court to learn the identity of the mysterious plaintiff who has been filing public-records lawsuits that call out local government officials and agencies for allegedly refusing to comply with Florida’s Sunshine Law. Turner responded to a lawsuit the plaintiff filed last month against the city and City Clerk Tammy Bursick with a court filing of his own – a motion asking Circuit Court Judge Janet Croom to dismiss the case – and he’s using the plaintiff’s anonymity against him. In the motion filed in Indian River County, Turner argues that the lawsuit should be tossed because, under the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and prior court rulings in the state, the plaintiff may hide behind a pseudonym only in extremely limited circumstances. Those circumstances, according to Turner’s motion, include the “presence of some social stigma or the threat of physical harm” – neither of which appears to exist in this case. READ FULL STORY

Barrier island boundary shift appears to be sailing through state legislature
week of February 20, 2019

A pair of bills intended to shift the county border on the barrier island to place a beachfront mansion entirely in Indian River County and an unbuilt subdivision entirely in St. Lucie County have enjoyed widespread support from Florida lawmakers, so far. The state Senate Rules Committee voted 15-0 last Wednesday in favor of the boundary change bill sponsored by state Sen Debbie Mayfield (R-Vero). Meanwhile, the House Local, Federal and Veteran Affairs Subcommittee voted 12-0 on Feb. 3 for the companion boundary bill sponsored by state Rep. Delores Hogan-Johnson (R-Fort Pierce). It is now before the House Ways and Means Committee. So far, 37 lawmakers in the house and senate have voted for the bill, and none has opposed it. The boundary change will become effective if legislation passes both chambers and is signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Indian River and St. Lucie county commissioners last year adopted resolutions supporting the boundary change at the request of Dr. Oskar Szentirmai, whose home at 2498 S. Highway A1A sits on the borderline. READ FULL STORY

Cleveland Clinic gains a star in federal ratings
week of February 13, 2019

The latest hospital ratings from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services are out and local hospitals did not shine in the one-to-five-star ratings. The hospital with the noisiest rooms at night? Lawnwood Regional Medical Center. Slowest response to call buttons? Sebastian River Medical Center. Best odds of getting a second CT scan you didn’t need? Indian River Cleveland Clinic Hospital. Consistently clean bathrooms? None of the above. So goes the info now up on the Hospital Compare Star Rating website – but the data the ratings are based on is not particularly current. It comes from at best a year ago, and at worst, five years ago. That means the effects of Cleveland Clinic management on the former Indian River Medical Center weren’t factored into most of its scores. At Sebastian River, on the other hand, much of the data its scores were based on was accumulated on the watch of its latest owner, Steward Health, which took over in May 2017. In the overall star rating, Indian River gained one star and now has three out of a possible five. Steward’s Sebastian River stayed the same with two stars; Lawnwood earned only one star out of five, the same rating as last year. READ FULL STORY

Court cases from last year’s sex trafficking sting drag on slowly
week of February 13, 2019

One year after more than 160 men were arrested in Indian River County during a highly publicized but legally troubling sex trafficking sting, the fate of most of those cases rests with Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, which will determine whether law enforcement videos recorded at two local massage spas may be used as evidence. The slow-moving appeals process also has placed on hold a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the city of Vero Beach by a Fort Pierce-based attorney who claims the way police conducted video surveillance violated spa customers’ Fourth Amendment right to privacy. “The federal court has stayed the proceeding, pending the Fourth District’s ruling on the videos,” said island resident Brad Jefferson, the attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Until the stay is lifted, I’m not allowed to move forward. As soon as that happens, though, we’ll file our request for certification as a class with the judge.” Jefferson had only one plaintiff when he filed the lawsuit in May – nine days after County Judges David Morgan and Nicole Menz both ruled the videos were inadmissible in court – but he said Monday he now has as many as 12. READ FULL STORY

Centennial Place: No word yet on cost, or where the money would come from
week of February 13, 2019

As plans to transform Vero’s defunct power plant and aging sewage treatment plant at the base of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge into a vibrant Centennial Place wow local residents, two key questions remain unanswered. How much is a riverfront entertainment hub likely to cost? And where will the money come from to implement the vision? Miami-based designer Andres Duany has no cost estimate for the build-out of the spectacular concept he presented to the city a couple of weeks ago that would bring shops, restaurants, docks, a boathouse and a hotel to the 35-acre site along with other features. Estimates for how much revenue leasing or selling parts of the property to developers would bring have not yet been calculated, either, Duany added. “It’s much too early,” he said. Duany’s concept includes three restaurants; a waterfront boardwalk and walking paths throughout the property, which would contain a small lake; Youth Sailing Foundation headquarters; boat docks; wedding chapel; beach volleyball courts, skateboard park and playground area; and small retail buildings. READ FULL STORY

Home-health nurses accused of theft from elderly remain free
week of February 13, 2019

No real progress has been made since prosecutors plead- ed in court two months ago to speed up the trial of two home-health nurses accused of stealing more than a half-million dollars from an elderly John’s Island couple, so a jury can hear the case while the 88-year-old victim in the alleged crime is still alive. Sophia Monae Shepherd (aka Sophia Brown) and Chiquita Lashae McGee have been charged with serious felonies – exploitation of the elderly for $50,000 or more, and scheme to defraud a financial institution. But McGee and Shepherd, both arrested in early 2018, remain free on bond with lax release conditions as they await trial on charges that could carry up to 60 years in prison. The nurses are accused of stealing $543,000 from John’s Island residents Alfred and Michelina “Aline” Martinelli, using the couple’s money and credit to pay for gambling junkets, stays at the Plaza in Manhattan and other hotels, cruises, luxury items, jewelry and clothing from Neiman Marcus and the Ralph Lauren store, plastic surgery procedures and even the rental of a Rolls Royce Ghost. READ FULL STORY

High-stakes battle for 2 School Board seats
week of February 13, 2019

The battle over two School Board seats up for grabs this year is shaping up as a high-stakes fight between two rival political factions that could determine control of the board and the very soul of the Indian River County School District. The board is currently ruled by a 3-2 voting block consisting of Board Chairman Laura Zorc, Vice-Chairman Mara Schiff and board member Jacqueline Rosario. The three women have frequently thwarted the political efforts of board members Tiffany Justice and Teri Barenborg during the past year, as when the pair supported former school superintendent Mark Rendell before he was ousted. The balance of power could change because Zorc is being challenged for her District 3 seat by longtime educator Peggy Jones, who is politically aligned with Justice and Barenborg. The primary election will be held Aug. 18. If there are only two candidates vying for the same seat, whoever wins the primary wins the seat, according to the Indian River County Elections Office. READ FULL STORY

Virgin Trains operating losses top $200 million
week of February 13, 2019

Virgin Trains USA racked up operating losses of more than $200 million in its first two years running passenger service in South Florida, with 2019 ticket revenue falling far short of projections. Virgin Trains lost $80.9 million on existing operations from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, 2019, at the same time as the company undertook construction of new high-speed railroad tracks linking South Florida and Orlando International Airport. If the bleeding continued at the same pace through Dec. 31, 2019, VTUSA’s operating loss for the year would amount to $107.8 million, reports show. The company lost $109 million on operations in 2018. VTUSA plans to run 34 passenger trains per day through Indian River County at speeds up to 110 mph when service begins between Orlando and South Florida. The start date for that service has been moved back repeatedly by the company and is now projected for late 2022. READ FULL STORY

D’Agresta billed school district over $2.4 million
week of February 6, 2019

School District Attorney Suzanne D’Agresta may have priced herself out of a job. The Orlando-based lawyer, who has held the school district job for more than a decade, is already on thin ice with the School Board after submitting a rogue desegregation report to a federal judge that aroused the ire of the judge, School Board members and the district’s new superintendent. But it may be her billable hours that end her career in Indian River County, where the School Board is considering options for replacing her. A review of records shows D’Agresta charged the school district more than $2.4 million in legal fees and travel expenses over the past seven years, at the same time she raked in cash working for other districts around the state. In addition, the local school district had to cough up another $2 million during the same period to pay outside law firms D’Agresta hired to help her fight lawsuits and perform other legal work, according to school district financial records. D’Agresta receives a $264,000 annual retainer fee, paid in monthly installments, that covers 30 hours of legal work per week. Along with that income, she’s also received money each year for “additional work performed,” beyond 30 hours a week. READ FULL STORY

Increased access to treatment needed for teen depression
week of February 6, 2019

In Vero Beach, one set of parents wants to tell the world about their son if it helps prevent another suicide. Two weeks ago, the 17-year-old senior at Vero High took his own life. Now his mother, who has been hospitalized six times with bipolar disorder, is struggling again. Helping others look for signs of depression may help her make sense of what has happened, she says. “If my baby can save one other child, then I’m going to talk about it,” said Carolyn Pierre, the mom of the boy. Holding up a photo of her son smiling broadly, she said, “This is what depression looks like.” In Sebastian, another set of parents has told virtually no one outside their family what they went through on New Year’s Day when their child attempted suicide. But a month later, their 14-year-old daughter, pursuing what she sees as a fresh start, is ready to share her experience to try to help others, passing on the encouragement she got in a mental health hospital and the hope she is finding in continued therapy. READ FULL STORY

Brian Barefoot plans to run for seat on the School Board
week of February 6, 2019

Former Indian River Shores Mayor Brian Barefoot said he’s running for the county School Board to support Superintendent David Moore’s reform efforts and to bring transparency and greater accountability back to the local school system. “The kids are getting shortchanged, and the taxpayers are not getting a good return on their investment,” Barefoot said over the weekend. Barefoot said he’s met with Moore and said he’s convinced the new top man at the school district is “clearly the best candidate if you want someone who is going to shake things up.” But Moore needs School Board members with the knowledge, the skills and the fortitude to back him up, Barefoot said. If Moore’s ambitious reform agenda meets with an obstructionist School Board that is ill-equipped to steer the district through a needed process of change, that attitude will trickle down to administrators and teachers. Moore’s plans could get bogged down in bureaucracy. “That would be a huge missed opportunity,” Barefoot said. “School districts have a lot of different constituents – you have the students and the parents, and the taxpayers are also constituents,” Barefoot said. “You need total transparency. Your constituents need to have complete confidence in what you’re doing.” READ FULL STORY

Harry Howle ponders entering race for County Commission
week of February 6, 2019

Just three months since stepping down from the Vero Beach City Council following the successful conclusion of the Vero electric sale, Harry Howle is feeling the urge to run for office again – this time for the District 5 County Commission seat being vacated by Bob Solari. His motivation: Solari, Howle said, is leaving enormous shoes to fill and right now, he doesn’t like the way the Republican primary race is shaping up. “I’ve been in discussions with trusted advisors and supporters for a few weeks. Looking at the current field, I’m not convinced anyone gets close enough to Commissioner Solari’s level of dedication to limited government for my liking,” Howle said. By the end of the week, Howle said he will decide whether to file papers to run. Howle ran for Vero Beach City Council in 2015 to beat back what he saw as the city running amok under Dick Winger and his cohorts in the “Keep Vero Vero” crowd. Now Howle thinks he sees that same element, with the same group of supporters, creeping into the race for Solari’s seat. READ FULL STORY

Rail construction not starting here this year
week of February 6, 2019

Virgin Trains USA will not close any railroad crossings in Vero Beach for construction until late 2021 or early 2022 as part of its $2.5 billion expansion of passenger service between West Palm Beach and Orlando. Construction had previously been expected to start in Vero Beach this summer, but Virgin Trains again pushed back the timetable for the oft-delayed passenger rail project. VTUSA construction teams will start work on “Heading 2” in Jensen Beach this year and proceed north through Martin and St. Lucie counties before reaching Indian River County. “So that puts Vero Beach and Sebastian closer to the end of the construction phase,” VTUSA Vice President Rusty Roberts told Vero Beach officials in an email. “Our team tells me that we should expect the Vero Beach design plans to be ready sometime in second quarter this year . . . well in advance of the actual construction,” Roberts said. Roberts also agreed to take up the Vero Beach City Council’s offer to make a presentation about the passenger rail project and the idea of developing a multimodal terminal for train, bus and air lines at Vero Beach Regional Airport. But no date was set. READ FULL STORY

Dale Sorensen Real Estate, largest brokerage in county, has record year
week of February 6, 2019

Dale Sorensen Real Estate had its best year ever in 2019 with more than $800 million in transactions across the three-county region where it operates, including well over $500 million in Indian River County, making it by far the largest real estate brokerage in the county in terms of both dollar volume and number of transactions. According to figures from the MLS, Sorensen’s four offices in Indian River County handled 1,350 transactions that totaled $508 million, up nearly 10 percent from 2018, when the company did $465 million in business here. That averages out to 26 transactions and nearly $10 million a week, in season and out, year-round. Transactions in Brevard totaled $249.3 million in 2019, up 25 percent from just two years before when the number was $200.1 million. St. Lucie sales were $14.2 million in 2019, down about $2 million from 2018. Besides the $771 million in sales recorded in the MLS in the three counties, Managing Partner Dale Sorensen Jr. says an additional $44 million in sales didn’t show in the multiple listing service because they were of new construction, outside the three-county area or simply not listed on the MLS, bringing the company total to $815 million, the biggest number ever for an Indian River County-based brokerage. READ FULL STORY

County tourism director files complaint of being drugged
week of February 6, 2019

The county’s tourism director, accused of battery on a police officer, has filed a complaint with the Vero Beach Police Department saying she was drugged in a local bar while out with friends prior to a 3 a.m. Dec. 22 incident at IHOP on U.S. 1 that landed her in jail. Vero Police Capt. Matt Monaco had told Vero Beach 32963 on Jan. 27 that 40-year-old Allison McNeal had not filed a complaint with his agency, but three days later revised that statement. “I just found out that McNeal did file a report with us on the 23rd. The report was delayed showing up in our system,” Monaco said in an email on Jan. 30. Details of the complaint, such as which drug was used and the name of the bar, are not yet available. “We are unable to release the report at this time since it is an active investigation,” Monaco said. McNeal’s defense attorney Bobby Guttridge says his client was the victim of a serious crime while out with friends, which led to her run-in with the police and arrest. “We do have test results showing an illegal drug in her system that she did not take,” Guttridge said. READ FULL STORY

Big surge in kids seeking mental health assistance
week of January 30, 2019

A stunning increase in the number of ninth-graders asking for urgent help with their mental health – 37 came forward in just four days last fall – is putting heavy pressure on a year-old school program provided by the Mental Health Association. The violence and suicide prevention program was proposed by the nonprofit MHA and the Indian River Hospital District the day after the Valentine’s Day 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and was put into effect last February. Last year’s entire spring semester generated about the same number of students seeking counseling – 40 out of 970 in the program – as in the four days this past October. “The problem is much greater than we ever imagined,” said Dr. Nick Coppola, CEO of the Mental Health Association. “We were patting ourselves on the back last year. Then we went back this year, and now that we’ve earned their trust, we realized last year we were only scraping the surface.” So far, the program has been funded by the Hospital District and $50,000 in grants. READ FULL STORY

Felony charges filed against tourism director
week of January 30, 2019

Despite assertions by Allison McNeal’s attorney that his client was drugged in a local bar before being arrested at a Vero Beach IHOP last month, the 40-year-old county tourism director is now facing formal felony charges for the Dec. 22 incident. On Jan. 22, State Attorney Bruce Colton’s office filed an Information charging McNeal, a Vero Beach resident, with third-degree felony of battery of Vero Beach Police Officer Kassandra Ayala, plus third-degree felony resisting arrest with violence and a second-degree misdemeanor charge for trespassing. The charging document filed by Assistant State Attorney Michelle McCarter says McNeal’s altercation with Ayala – which police say occurred around 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning at the IHOP in the 1800 block of U.S. 1 in Vero – happened during the course of Ayala’s duties as a police officer, and that McNeal knew Ayala was a police officer when she allegedly tried to hit her in the face, landing a blow on Ayala’s arm instead. The Information also says McNeal, whose job is to help attract and welcome visitors to Vero Beach, “refused to depart” the IHOP after having been warned. READ FULL STORY

Sheriff’s captain let off after theft probe
week of January 30, 2019

Investigators say a recently concluded, 144-day Internal Affairs probe into theft allegations against a Sheriff’s Office captain – who chose to resign in September, rather than provide a sworn statement – did not uncover enough evidence to charge him with a crime. According to the IA report, however, the investigation produced sufficient evidence to prove that Adam Bailey, as captain of the Corrections Division last summer, violated Sheriff’s Office rules, policies and procedures by purchasing more than $1,700 worth of household-type items with his agency-issued credit card. According to the complaint lodged against him, “It is alleged that Captain Adam Bailey has procured items using his assigned credit card and then used said items in a manner not directly related to the mission of the Sheriff’s Office. “It is alleged that he purchased new tools, camping equipment and household fixtures, and said items have not been properly accounted for, nor were they submitted for issuance of an asset number and/or assignment.” A Jan. 10 letter from Sheriff Deryl Loar informed Bailey that the IA investigation found him guilty of “unbecoming conduct” and “neglect of duty,” but was unable to prove any violations of the law. READ FULL STORY

Abandoned citrus packing houses poignant reminder of glory days
week of January 30, 2019

Abandoned citrus packing houses in and around Vero Beach are a poignant reminder of the glory days here, when the scent of orange blossoms perfumed the air in spring and summer, and more than half the grapefruits grown on the planet came from Indian River and St. Lucie counties. Most of these hulking ghosts, with their tumble-down signs and flapping sheet metal, are strung out along U.S. 1 and Dixie Highway between Wabasso and Oslo Road. They are the aftermath of citrus greening – a wicked, insect-borne bacterial disease from China that appeared in Florida in 2005 and over the next decade wiped out 75 percent of orange production and 85 percent of grapefruit production in the state, according to the University of California. The faded names on the shuttered packinghouses – Hale Groves, Quality Fruit Packers, Graves Brothers – evoke the history of Indian River County, but the properties themselves could be part of its future. The packinghouses come with fair-sized chunks of land and many of the buildings are still sound, despite their forlorn looks. READ FULL STORY

County unlikely to kick in to keep Elite flying from Vero
week of January 30, 2019

County Administrator Jason Brown says Indian River County most likely will not fly to the rescue as Vero Beach tries to come up with funds to keep commercial airline passenger service at Vero Beach Regional Airport. The funding shortfall cropped up when Elite Airways, the airport’s only passenger airline, boarded more than 10,000 passengers for the first time in 2018. That number triggered a reclassification of the airport from a general aviation airport to a commercial airport that will go into effect in July. The reclassification reduces the airport’s eligibility for state grants and could cost the Vero as much as $1 million annually for airport projects in the city’s five-year plan, according City Manager Monte Falls, but Brown said that is the city’s problem. Brown said he would recommend the County Commission refrain from taxing county residents to prevent passenger service at the airport from crashing. “There has been a tendency for the city to look at county residents as takers and not contributors to the city airport,” Brown said. “The city raised the issue that some of the customers of Elite are county residents so they need to help pay for this, but I would also say county residents ... support the airport in its other operations.” READ FULL STORY

Seminar to discuss flushing Bethel Creek with seawater
week of January 30, 2019

County Commissioner Tim Zorc is determined to clean up Bethel Creek. For years, he has pushed for a project that would flush the stagnant creek with ocean water. Continuing that effort, he will host a seminar in March to make the public more aware of an innovative research project now underway in the creek that could lead to the kind of seawater flushing he believes would restore the ecological health of this inlet from the Indian River Lagoon. At the seminar, experts will explain a research project that has been undertaken by scientists from Florida Institute of Technology. The project involves a highly sophisticated computer-model study based on data collected in Bethel Creek, aimed at determining if the murky inlet can be cleaned by flushing it with ocean water. The university last year was awarded $800,000 by the state legislature for the first phase of the project, which will study a site in the Banana River and the Bethel Creek – which starts near the Village Market on the barrier island and curves through residential neighborhoods to open into the lagoon near the Vero Beach Municipal Marina. READ FULL STORY

New program may see local schools compete for students
week of January 30, 2019

Superintendent David Moore wants Indian River County schools to compete for students by offering specialized programs youths will be excited about and want to attend, and he has a plan to make that happen. Principals and teachers at every school in the district have been tasked with developing unique programs and curriculum to attract students from other schools, under a new “schools of choice” program Moore announced last week. “I’ve asked principals to market their schools with unique offerings,” Moore said. “In March we’re going to have a schools of choice fair where principals and teachers will pitch their schools” to students and parents. The goal is to motivate each school in the district to provide better opportunities for students, Moore said. Those opportunities could come in the form of niche programs, such as specialized math and science classes, or arts programs not offered elsewhere in the district. The schools of choice fair will be an annual event, Moore said. READ FULL STORY

Vero City Council backs Sen. Mayfield’s rail safety bill
week of January 30, 2019

As Virgin Trains USA develops passenger service that will zip through Vero Beach at up to 110 mph, the City Council concluded safety trumps cozying up to the company for a possible train station. Two weeks after skipping a chance to endorse state Sen. Debbie Mayfield’s high-speed passenger rail safety bill, the council voted unanimously Jan. 21 to send her a letter supporting the legislation. Councilman Joe Graves and Vice Mayor Laura Moss said their reluctance to support Mayfield’s bill on Jan. 7 as the council sought talks with Virgin Trains about a train station was misinterpreted by the public and rival politicians. “After hearing the comments after the last city council meeting, I personally want to make it clear that I applaud the efforts of Sen. Mayfield for putting forth this rail safety bill,” Graves said. “I would never compromise the safety of the citizens in order to get a stop.” Criticism of Graves and Moss for downplaying Mayfield’s bill and pushing for talks with Virgin Trains about putting a train station at Vero Beach Regional Airport continued during the Jan. 21 council meeting. READ FULL STORY

Cleveland Clinic making major changes to ER
week of January 23, 2019

For Holly Owen, wait times can’t wait. Owen, who took over managing the emergency department at Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital last fall as part of her role as director of critical care services, immediately went to work devising a plan to shave critical minutes off ED wait times while also improving patient privacy and quality of care. The changes, expected to be complete by the end of January, will add 20 patient beds or treatment chairs to the current 44, streamlining the workflow and reducing patient wait times. Improved care and comfort are also part of the plan. A paramedic will now greet patients at the front entrance to identify symptoms of urgent concern. And at registration and discharge, clerks with portable tablets and printers will come to the patient instead of the other way around, sparing patients the effort of standing in line while shaving more minutes off the dreaded ED ordeal. “It’s going to be drastically different,” says Owen, fanning the pages of a daily checklist that evolved out of multiple meetings over the past month. “We’ve had work groups with physicians, registration, techs, paramedics – everybody – so we can streamline the times and make the experience an excellent one while still giving quality care.” READ FULL STORY

New super:‘Bold steps’ needed to improve schools
week of January 23, 2019

Superintendent David Moore told a standing-room-only crowd at a townhall meeting last week that the school district’s current way of operating isn’t working, and vowed changes are on the way. Those changes include better management of the district’s finances and holding school administrators and teachers more accountable for student academic success, Moore said. Moore delivered his bluntly worded message to more than 150 school employees and residents who attended a Jan. 16 townhall meeting at the J.A. Thompson Administrative Center. “Our current plan is not working,” Moore said. “Bold, courageous steps must be taken to improve the district. “I’m going to be questioning our current efforts and outcomes, the effectiveness of our current leadership. It’s not a matter of can things change. They will change.” READ FULL STORY

Lagoon waterfront saved from development
week of January 23, 2019

All island residents who care about protecting the wide green vista along the western shore of the lagoon that we see when coming over the top of the Barber Bridge got a late Christmas present last week from the Indian River Land Trust. The nonprofit, which was founded in 1990 to help save McKee Botanical Gardens, scored its biggest triumph in recent years on Friday, when it closed on the purchase of a 65-acre parcel just north of the Barber Bridge. The land, long known as the Hoffmann property, completes what is now a two-mile stretch of shoreline – extending from the main relief canal south of the bridge to Oak Harbor – that will be preserved in its natural state for the foreseeable future. “This is the most visible and impactful acquisition we have made along the lagoon,” Land Trust board chairman Chuck Cramb said. “The property embodies the Land Trust’s . . . [goal of] preserving habitat, protecting scenic waterfront and providing public access to the benefit of future generations.” READ FULL STORY

Community Church bids farewell to Revs. Baggott
week of January 23, 2019

More than 1,000 smiling faces – and fistfuls of tissues – reflected the mixed emotions of the congregation as the Revs. Bob and Casey Baggott delivered a final message Sunday to worshipers at Community Church, where the couple has served for 16 years. The Baggotts, who shared duties as the spiritual leaders of one of Vero’s most prominent churches, are headed back to Minneapolis to be close to their 13 children and grandchildren – a group that filled a long row of seats at Sunday’s service. In addition to hundreds of sermons, the pair also co-wrote the On Faith column for Vero Beach 32963. The Baggotts’ farewell was delivered in the church’s main sanctuary, against a backdrop of the spectacular Lively-Fulcher pipe organ. The sanctuary required extensive renovation when the organ was installed and the Baggotts led the successful effort to raise $13 million for the instrument and construction. READ FULL STORY

School Board seeks options for replacing outside attorney
week of January 23, 2019

Attorney Suzanne D’Agresta’s long tenure as hired outside counsel for the Indian River County School Board seems likely to end this year after the board directed Superintendent David Moore to explore options for replacing her. The board’s directive comes just days after D’Agresta was reprimanded by a federal judge for writing and submitting an unauthorized desegregation “progress” report. U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, who oversees the school district’s compliance with a federal desegregation order that has been in effect for 52 years, also sharply criticized D’Agresta for refusing to include in the report input from the NAACP and the district’s Equity Committee. While D’Agresta’s solo report painted a rosy picture about the district’s progress in complying with the federal order’s requirements to reduce inequity in the schools, the NAACP and the Equity Committee say little progress has been made. The board and Moore said the judge’s reprimand of D’Agresta was “embarrassing” to the school district. “We’ve been dancing around this for the past year,” School Board chairwoman Mara Schiff said at the board’s Jan. 14 work session. “We need to make a decision sooner, rather than later. We need to do this.” READ FULL STORY

High school likely to start later in the future
week of January 23, 2019

Superintendent David Moore wants high school students to start classes later in the morning than the current 7:10 a.m, a change advocated for the past year by School Board member Tiffany Justice. Moore, who took over leadership of the school district last month, previously served as an assistant superintendent in the Miami-Dade district where school start times were advanced after three years of research. He said is in favor of a similar change here and has already begun pitching it to the School Board and to the public. “Our research shows that later start times improve academic performance,” Moore told the School Board in December. “It is a big change and it takes time to implement so you have to move aggressively.” Pre-K and elementary classes currently start between 8:40 a.m. and 8:50 a.m. Middle school students begin school at 8 a.m. The school day for high school students starts at 7:10 a.m. Board members expressed most concern about the early start time for high school students. It wasn’t clear if start times for other grade levels might be altered as well. READ FULL STORY

Why did state wait so long to bring charges in boating death?
week of January 23, 2019

More than two and a half years after a tragic boating crash resulting in the June 2017 death of his friend Chance Riviero, 21-year-old Jayson Clark of southwest Vero was arrested on vessel homicide charges. What took so long to make an arrest is somewhat of a mystery. Assistant State Attorney Brian Workman, the attorney prosecuting the case based upon an investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), said “vehicle fatality cases always take longer than other cases before being presented. “This case required additional follow-up by the agency and review by experts before I could reach a charging decision,” Workman said. “The charge is well within the statute of limitations and I expect it to now proceed just as any other case.” Vero-based defense attorney Andy Metcalf, who is representing Clark, said he’s worked a good number of cases involving a fatal crash and a state agency – typically the Florida Highway Patrol – and though the length of time can vary, two and a half years is more than twice as long as what he has experienced. READ FULL STORY

Vero City Council ‘blindsided’ by airport funding problem
week of January 23, 2019

When Elite Airways arrived in Vero four years ago, the city was so excited by the resumption of commercial air service it appears to have never considered how unlikely it was that passenger growth would offset a future loss of state funding for Vero Beach airport projects. But city officials now belatedly say it would take at least 200,000 passengers departing from the Vero airport annually to offset the loss of $1 million a year in state airport funding that kicks in when commercial flights board more than 10,000 passengers. The number boarding Elite flights here in 2018: just over 11,000. “From talking to the previous city manager, the understanding that I have gleaned from it was that the city anticipated that the growth from Elite – and possibly other airlines that might come in – would get to the point that would make this viable,” City Manager Monte Falls said. “It’s just unfortunate that the growth hasn’t been that dynamic.” The Vero Beach City Council was blindsided by the news of the financial booby trap, Vice Mayor Laura Moss said. “I was surprised because you think to yourself, ‘Well, everybody must have known, including Elite.’” READ FULL STORY

Mystery public-records lawsuits plaintiff strikes again
week of January 23, 2019

The mystery plaintiff who filed public records lawsuits against the school district and Sheriff’s Office in December is now taking the City of Vero Beach to court, too. According to the plaintiff, identified only as “John Doe aka” in all three court filings, more such lawsuits are planned. “Obviously, I cannot say who the next lawsuit will be filed against,” the plaintiff said in an online interview with Vero Beach 32963, adding that “more are currently being drafted and another will be filed soon.” The anonymous plaintiff said he will not reveal his identity until he’s done filing lawsuits to compel government officials and agencies to provide the public records he seeks. The third lawsuit was filed last week against the City of Vero Beach and City Clerk Tammy Bursick for public records connected to her city-issued cellphone. The suit also sought the August billing statement for another city-issued cellphone assigned to City Councilwoman Laura Moss. READ FULL STORY

Sebastian River gets new CEO but troubles continue
week of January 16, 2019

Sebastian River Medical Center’s much-delayed $60-million expansion has missed another projected completion date. With no explanation from hospital management, the project blew past the December completion date predicted by the hospital’s then-CEO Kyle Sanders before he left last fall. A new president and CEO, Ronald Bierman, was finally named last week, but the hoped-for February opening now appears further delayed to late spring or early summer. Bierman formerly led another Steward Health hospital, Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren, Ohio, and since November has been running Sharon Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania. Construction setbacks are not the only delays causing the hospital to take heat. As the hospital’s construction team prepares for a review next week by the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration, that same agency has fined Sebastian River for delays in filing financial documents unrelated to the expansion. The $4,000 fine levied by AHCA in mid-December marks the fourth time the hospital has been fined for late filings since Steward Health acquired the hospital in mid-2017. It is the second time the hospital has been late providing prior year financial statements. READ FULL STORY

After years of pursuit, does Vero not really want commercial air service?
week of January 16, 2019

Elite Airways may end up a victim of its own success after the Vero Beach Airport Commission voted in favor of terminating the airline’s lease at Vero Beach Regional Airport to keep the city from losing up to a $1 million a year in state grants. The City Council, which will make the final decision, is expected to take up the issue at its Jan. 21 meeting. Elite Airways, which flies small Bombardier jets carrying 50 or 70 passengers back and forth between Vero Beach and Newark, N.J., as well as other destinations, has been a big hit in Vero. Since it launched service here in 2015, beachside residents with summer homes in the New York area have raved about the convenience of the flights – with free parking, quick boarding and the airport just minutes from the island – and Elite has said that Vero is its best market. Passenger numbers – and airline revenue – steadily increased from year to year and in 2018 the company flew 11,084 passengers, according to city documents. READ FULL STORY

Randy Gori, 47, of Orchid Island slain in Illinois robbery
week of January 16, 2019

When tragedy took a husband and father in Edwardsville, Ill., it also deprived the 32963 barrier island community of an extremely generous, thoughtful, and down to earth part-time resident. Powerhouse personal-injury attorney Randy Lee Gori was brutally murdered in his Illinois home on Jan. 4, and according to reports, died saving the lives of his two minor children. The accused killer has been arrested and the investigation into the heinous crime is ongoing. Mourners paid their respects Monday evening at St. Boniface Catholic Church in the small town of Edwardsville, population 25,000, about 20 miles from St. Louis, where Gori’s law firm has offices. The firm’s claim to fame, according to the St. Louis Business Journal report, is that it “has won more than $3 billion in asbestos cases throughout the U.S.” Gori’s obituary described his charity work saying, “Randy was a true philanthropist at heart.” A bit of the fruits of Gori’s courtroom prowess made its way to Vero’s barrier island eight years ago. Seeking a place to enjoy sun and surf with their children on school holidays, Gori, 47, and his wife Beth first bought a $2.5 million oceanfront home in Ocean Ridge near The Moorings. Then in 2016 the family moved north on the island to an $8 million oceanfront estate in the Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club. READ FULL STORY

In dramatic reversal, Vero now seeks train station
week of January 16, 2019

In a dramatic reversal, Vero Beach’s mayor and city council now want to team up with Virgin Trains USA to develop a train and bus station at Vero Beach Regional Airport as the company forges ahead with its Miami to Orlando high-speed passenger rail project. The proposal is an amazing turnaround from what most local officials have been saying ever since the high-speed train project was announced. Up till now, there has been nearly unanimous opposition to the train project, with the county spending millions on lawsuits to block the rail service and the city expressing support for the county’s stance and passing an anti-train resolution as far back as 2014. Now, with the county losing again in federal court and County Attorney Dylan Reingold advising commissioners there is no point in further appeals, the city has decided to try and work with the train company. The council on Jan. 7 directed City Manager Monte Falls to try to negotiate with VTUSA representatives for a train station at the airport and quiet zones at the city’s railroad crossings. READ FULL STORY

Sheriff Loar: ‘This guy is lying to you’
week of January 16, 2019

Sheriff Deryl Loar flatly rejected a mystery plaintiff’s claim that the public records lawsuits filed against the Sheriff’s Office and school district last month were not politically motivated. “This guy is lying to you,” Loar said of the plaintiff, who identified himself only as “John Doe aka” in the court filings. “He’s being disingenuous when he tells you he has no political motives.” Loar said he believes the plaintiff is working – alone or in tandem with a political ally – to defeat Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers, the candidate Loar has endorsed to succeed him as the county’s top law enforcement officer. According to Loar, the anonymous plaintiff filed 320 public records requests with the Sheriff’s Office between Sept. 17 and Jan. 9, and “all of them were directly related to Eric Flowers.” Loar said he also found it curious that retired Sheriff’s Capt. Chuck Kirby, who also is running for sheriff, showed up at the Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 13 and used a money order to pay for some of the records requested by READ FULL STORY

Federal judge reprimands School Board’s hired attorney
week of January 16, 2019

A federal judge on Friday reprimanded county School Board attorney Suzanne D’Agresta for writing and submitting an unauthorized desegregation “progress” report, and sharply criticized her for refusing to include in the report input from the NAACP and the school district’s Equity Committee. U.S District Judge Kathleen Williams, who oversees the school district’s compliance with a long-standing federal desegregation order, informed D’Agresta during a hearing in Miami she would not accept the report the attorney authored and submitted without informing the school board. The outlines of the two-hour hearing were confirmed by Judge Williams office, the school district and the NAACP. “Judge Williams basically decided to throw the report into the trash and ‘spanked’ D’Agresta for refusing to allow the NAACP and the Equity Committee to have any input,” said NAACP President Tony Brown, who attended the hearing. “The judge chewed her out.” D’Agresta could not be reached for comment on Monday. School district officials said Superintendent David Moore, who also attended the hearing, could not comment on the legal issue. Brown said Williams did not instruct the two sides to resubmit a joint report, but said she expected a joint report that meets the court’s requirements when the next progress update is filed later this year. READ FULL STORY

County seeks ‘critically eroded’ designation for beaches
week of January 16, 2019

Indian River County commissioners are hoping to get 3.3 miles of beach – mostly in Indian River Shores – designated as “critically eroded,” with the aim of securing state funds to help defray the cost of repairing the shoreline. The area known as Sector 4, which extends from Old Winter Beach Boulevard to Surf Lane, was damaged by hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Dorian. Beaches have narrowed along that stretch due to wind and waves eating away at the shoreline. In an effort to sway the state, the county commission approved a $25,800 proposal to hire engineering consultant, APTIM Environmental and Infrastructure Inc., to analyze beach survey data and prepare a petition to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that asks the agency to classify the shoreline in Sector 4 as critically eroded. “The county is focused on pursuing the critically eroded designation,” County Administrator Jason Brown said. “Once that process is complete, we will make a decision regarding Sector 4 beach restoration activities.” READ FULL STORY

Local tennis pros compete in 25th annual King of the Hill
week of January 16, 2019

The 25th annual King of the Hill tennis tournament started last week with local teaching pros as committed as ever to playing in the wildly popular, in-season event, which has raised more than $450,000 for Youth Guidance of Indian River County since its inception in 1996. “Without the players, you don’t have an event,” said Gigi Casapu, the longtime local teaching pro who founded and still organizes the doubles-only tournament. “Fortunately, there’s no other place where the pros from different clubs work together and help each other the way they do in Vero Beach. “Their commitment to the event, along with the support we receive from the sponsors and the community, is what has made King of the Hill the tradition it has become.” This year’s tournament has been expanded from six weeks to eight, with play in the 40-and-over and 50-and-over divisions – each has eight players – starting last Tuesday at The Boulevard Tennis Club and continuing Tuesday nights through Feb. 4. Play in the 16-player Open division is scheduled to start Feb. 11 at The Moorings and continuing on Tuesday nights through March 3. READ FULL STORY

Michael Jones appeals conviction for murdering nurse Duve
week of January 16, 2019

Michael David Jones, found guilty last month of murder in the slaying of Moorings resident and Sebastian River Medical Center nurse Diana Duve, has filed an appeal of his conviction with Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals. The court reporter transcribing the hearings, jury selection, trial and sentencing of convicted killer Michael David Jones has estimated she will end up sending the appellate court 4,400 pages of transcripts. On top of that, the Indian River Clerk of the Court must send the Court of Appeals copies of all of Circuit Court Judge Dan Vaughn’s rulings on motions and evidence, plus all pleadings filed by the state or the defense in preparation for the panel to consider Jones’ Dec. 3 appeal. Jones, 37, who was sentenced to life in prison for the June 2014 death of the 26-year-old Diana Duve, is challenging decisions Vaughn made eight months before the trial with regard to evidence. He is also questioning the handling of the jury selection process, the trial and the sentencing phase, in which the jury spared him the death penalty. READ FULL STORY