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Could have been worse
week of September 14, 2017

It was, the weather forecasters told us, the mother of all hurricanes – first a strong category four, then a category five, and finally by midweek, with cyclonic winds at 185 miles per hour, the strongest to form that far east in the Atlantic in recorded history. As Irma spun her way west, devastating one island after another in the Lesser Antilles, all eyes here were on the “spaghetti tracks” – computer models that projected where the killer storm would go, and what it would ravage next. For an agonizing time, only days but it seemed like weeks, it appeared that Vero Beach might be directly in Irma’s path. Shops and businesses closed, workmen feverishly boarded up windows, hotels and restaurants shut down, and long before Saturday’s mandatory evacuation, people began streaming off the island. By Friday, Ocean Drive in mid-afternoon was deserted – nary a car in sight. Then the computer models – the European, the UKMET, even the GFS (we got to know all these names during the week) – began showing Irma heading farther west. By Saturday, it began to appear that while Vero faced a couple of days of torrential rain and tropical storm force winds, it no longer was facing the destruction of a direct hit by a Category 5 hurricane. READ FULL STORY

Audit panel raps school bosses on health insurance
week of September 14, 2017

The Indian River County School District Audit Committee had tough questions for district administrators and insurance executives as it dug into the problems that have plagued the district’s employee health insurance fund. The questioning revealed that the district does not know whether its self-insurance fund costs more or less than getting health insurance for employees through a private company, and that its payment arrangement with its benefits consultant rewards inefficiency and poor results. The mismanaged health insurance fund was $7 million in deficit last year. It was that huge and hard-to-explain shortfall that spurred the School Board to reactivate the Audit Committee, last convened in 2012. Audit Committee Member Glenn Heran zeroed in on School District administrators’ failure to do basic cost analysis. He asked if the district regularly compares the cost of being self-insured to having a private insurance company provide health benefits. “Do you look at the in-house cost? The issue is the complete cost and do you know what your alternative would be each year?” READ FULL STORY

Charters finally get a $3.3 million settlement from the School Board
week of September 14, 2017

A three-year legal battle came to an end last Thursday when the School Board agreed to pay nearly $3.3 million in withheld tax revenue and punitive interest to five public charter schools over the next four years. The charters claimed they did not receive their fair share of a four-year, voter-approved tax that collected 60 cents per $1,000 of property value in the county for school funding. Charter school students comprise nearly 13 percent of the district’s student population, but the district gave them only 5 percent of the revenue from the tax from July 2013 to July 2017. Circuit Judge Paul Kanarek ruled against the School Board in June, finding it should have disbursed revenue equally among all students, including charter students. Since that decision the School Board has considered appealing the ruling while also negotiating settlement details with the charters. The charter schools initially asked for the back tax revenue owed, legal fees and over 12 percent interest, citing a state law that allows districts to be charged punitive interest for withholding tax funds from charter schools. READ FULL STORY

Anti-sale Council faction still seeks to block electric deal
week of September 14, 2017

As a massive storm churned toward Florida last week, and residents started to stock up, board up and prepare to evacuate the area, another troubling tempest erupted at the Vero Beach City Council meeting as members debated the sale of the electric utility. On the Sept. 7 editorial page, Vero Beach 32963 reported that stalwarts of Vero’s anti-sale faction were regurgitating old objections to the sale and trying to obfuscate the facts of the current deal with Florida Power & Light that’s taken eight years to put in place. Councilmen Dick Winger and Tony Young last Tuesday night mounted what could be seen as an effort to sidetrack the sale by sending two matters to volunteer advisory committees – often the Siberia of local government. Winger wanted to ask the Vero’s Finance and Utilities commissions to analyze the partial sale of Indian River Shores portion of the electric system and undertake a five-year post-sale analysis of city revenues and expenses. “I wrote these two things before noon on Wednesday (the deadline to get items on a council agenda) because these are things the commissions asked to do,” Winger said. READ FULL STORY

Membership up at Yacht Club after renovations
week of September 14, 2017

Three years ago, after seeing membership fall to an alarmingly low level, the Vero Beach Yacht Club's leadership took a hard look at its aging facilities, which were in dire need of structural upgrades and aesthetic enhancements. Committees were formed, priorities were identified and plans were made – all with the goal of making the club, founded in 1926, more attractive to new and younger members. Now, the club has a refurbished Burgee Room bar area, new tiki bar, rebuilt seawall and waterfront patio, and a completely renovated, fresh-feeling clubhouse that more welcoming, more energy efficient and safer. It also has a membership that has grown from 478 to 610. "We're at our maximum," Commodore Barbara Ebstein said. "We'll re-evaluate it over the next six months, but we don't want to over-tax our staff and overextend ourselves. We've been at full capacity all summer, and we've got several members coming back in October. "So anyone who wants to join now goes on a wait list." READ FULL STORY

Gruesome murder case to be retried at county courthouse
week of September 14, 2017

It was a Wednesday morning in early December when landscapers called police to report something they had found. The men had been hired to cut the grass at a home in west Gifford but a foul smell kept them from their work. They followed the scent, something they later told sheriff’s deputies was akin to the odor of a dead animal, to a shed near a vacant lot next door. A severely decomposed body lay face up and contorted on the grass. Dressed in black, the dead man’s upper torso pointed east. His feet looked to the west. His skull was on the ground next to him – two feet away at waist level. There was a bullet hole in the back of his head. The gruesome 2011 murder of Douglas Frasier, Jr. grabbed headlines that year, but the story fell out of the news and little was reported about the fate of Frasier’s then 22-year-old acquaintance, Edward Gibson Jr., the man eventually convicted for his death. READ FULL STORY

Sheriff’s Office ordered to pay $292,000 in auto lawsuit
week of September 14, 2017

A jury has awarded a Vero Beach woman $292,000 in damages for medical expenses and pain and suffering she experienced after a deputy with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office backed into a parked car she was inside. But it will be an uphill battle for the 29-year-old single mother to get all the money the jury said she is due. Olivia Brown was pregnant and sitting alone in the passenger seat of a black Nissan Altima on June 29, 2014, when Deputy Ronald Adamson shifted his Chevrolet Tahoe truck into reverse and accidently smashed into the car. Adamson’s vehicle was owned by the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office. The deputy told the responding officer he didn’t see the Nissan when the accident occurred around 8 p.m. near the 4600 block of 34th Avenue. He had been searching for a fugitive at a nearby residence when Brown and her acquaintance pulled up behind his vehicle. Both cars were legally parked along the side of the road. Neither party received a traffic citation, although an internal review completed after the accident found that Adamson could have avoided the crash. He was sent a letter of reprimand by the Sheriff’s Office. READ FULL STORY

Black-white achievement gap in local schools getting worse
week of September 7, 2017

The achievement gap between black and white students in the Indian River County School District is getting worse, not better, according to 2016-17 Florida Standards Assessment data released by the district. Meanwhile, a proposed African American Achievement Plan the district has been working on to remedy the gap – as required by a desegregation order in effect since 1967 – remains stalled. Dr. Jacqueline Warrior, local-chapter NAACP education chairperson, says just getting the district to start on the incomplete plan was a struggle. “The last two years of work on this plan have been tedious at best,” she said. Warrior worked with Director of Elementary Education Deb Berg and Director of Secondary Programs Deborah Long on plan drafts. Berg and Long are no longer in those positions, but Long, as “equity director,” is still involved with closing the achievement gap. Warrior is not pleased with the latest state test results. “It appears more black students are falling into the lower levels than climbing into the upper levels – the trend we are trying to reverse.” READ FULL STORY

Star-studded movie is set in Vero
week of September 7, 2017

The Chamber of Commerce had nothing to do with it and the Cultural Council didn’t have a clue when last weekend, a star-studded movie that’s set in Vero Beach opened here and across the country. About the only locals who knew about “I Do…Until I Don’t,” were a handful of the writer/director’s former classmates at St. Edward’s School. “We rolled pretty incognito in Vero,” says writer and director Lake Bell, reached by phone in Los Angeles. The well-known actress who has a lead role in the movie, says she has known and loved Vero Beach since she moved here in sixth grade. “I met her literally the first day she came to town,” recalls Elizabeth Sorensen, part of the Sorensen family of real estate brokers. It was June of last year when Bell got in touch with Sorensen for help scouting locations in Vero where the story takes place. With most of the movie being shot in Long Beach, Calif., “we were filling in the blanks,” says Bell. READ FULL STORY

Barges bring parts to power plant pier – but not to revive Big Blue
week of September 7, 2017

Two barges laden with huge hunks of high-tech steel generator parts arrived at the power plant wharf just north of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge last Saturday – but the electric components were not bound for the no-longer-operational Vero Electric facility. The 450,000-pound generator components manufactured in China are actually destined for a combined-cycle natural gas generating plant Florida Power & Light is building south of Yeehaw Junction, adjacent to the Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area. Pushed and pulled by tow boats, the barges, which had plowed down the Intracoastal Waterway from Port Canaveral, nosed into the dock at noon. A dozen or so additional shipments will be arriving in Vero over the next month, according to city officials. Once offloaded, the huge generator parts will be moved by special trucks and trailers, traversing State Route 60 in the dead of night when their size will be less of a hazard and hassle for other motorists. A representative of transport contractor Bigge Crane and Rigging said there will be at least 15 late-night convoys rolling out of the gates of the Big Blue grounds over the next several weeks, starting on a 3-to-4 hour trek to the plant site, accompanied by escorts, utility crews and flashing lights. READ FULL STORY

Thousands of tickets fail to solve beachside parking problem
week of September 7, 2017

The City of Vero Beach issued more than 4,000 parking tickets over the past year, and more than 60 percent of those annoying little slips of paper were given out on Ocean Drive and at Sexton Plaza. But the island parking problem they were intended to help with – a problem that has plagued beachside shops and restaurants for years – has not improved. In fact it seems to be getting worse. Some people do not pay the tickets, especially tourists driving rental cars, and for others the fines are just part of the cost of doing business. A banker who works on the island frequently pilots his SUV into one of the many 2-hour-limit slots along Ocean Drive and, also frequently, doesn’t bother to move the vehicle before 2 hours have passed. As a result, he was ticketed 28 times between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017, but it doesn’t seem to have bothered him. He paid the $20 fine for all 28 tickets – a total of $560 – and quite possibly is hogging a space today. READ FULL STORY

Developer seeking tenant for planned Ocean Drive restaurant
week of September 7, 2017

Apparently, the new restaurant under construction on Ocean Drive across from Bobby's will not be the new home of The Tides. According to Kristin Casalino of the Rita Curry Real Estate Team, which has the listing, property owner Sony Investment Real Estate Inc is actively seeking a tenant for the 2,685-square-foot, 143-seat restaurant. Sony's Vero Beach attorney, Bruce Barkett, identified The Tides as the new restaurant's tenant during a Vero Beach Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in March. However, The Tides owner and chef Leanne Kelleher began backing away from the project this past spring, after island residents and other Ocean Drive business owners publicly voiced concerns about the new restaurant's impact on an already-difficult parking situation in the Central Beach business district. Kelleher said in late May that, although she had expressed interest in moving her popular restaurant to the Ocean Drive location and was still involved in discussions with the property owner, she had not yet made a decision. Now, Kelleher appears to have decided against making the move to Ocean Drive. READ FULL STORY

County police agencies not pursuing illegal immigrants
week of September 7, 2017

While the Trump Administration continues to seek increased cooperation by local law enforcement agencies with federal immigration officials, police leaders here mostly view public safety as their primary focus in dealing with people living in Indian River County illegally. “If your only crime is that you are here illegally, then you are not our focus,” said Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry, whose community is nearly 80 percent Hispanic. An officer with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had just stopped by his office to check in, and Touchberry said working with federal agents is one tool to achieve an overall goal of protecting everyone from criminals – both those who have documentation to live and work in the United States, and those who do not. The police chief came under some scrutiny a couple of months ago after five Mexican immigrants were arrested in connection with a prostitution ring at a local residence. Those men were in the country illegally and they were referred to federal immigration officials. READ FULL STORY

200 attend South Beach memorial for Ryan Marcil
week of September 7, 2017

Under dark, threatening skies and with winds whipping off the ocean, more than 200 family members and friends gathered under and around a large tent Saturday at South Beach Park to remember Ryan Marcil, the 2009 St. Edward's School graduate who was killed in a mountain-climbing accident Aug. 20 in Colorado. "Ryan wouldn't want us to be sad," Marcil's father, Roger, said during the 90-minute celebration of his son's life. "He'd want us to seek our dreams and live our lives to the fullest, just as he did." Those who attended the casual-dress, seaside event were handed orchid leis to wear and white candles that were lit for the closing, circle-of-love ceremony during which Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" was performed by a guitar-singer duo. The walkway to the beach was lined with tiki torches and enlarged photographs of Marcil, who was 26 when he and his girlfriend, Carly Brightwell, fell to their deaths on Capital Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain west of Aspen. READ FULL STORY

School Board asks no questions about $30M in spending
week of August 24, 2017

The School Board at its Aug. 8 meeting preapproved $30 million in spending this next fiscal year without any detailed description of what the money will be used for, abdicating oversight of purchase of goods and services from 34 “recurring vendors” to district staff. Even though the amount is nearly 11 percent of the School District’s approximately $280 million budget, it was presented to the School Board as a rubber-stamp agenda item, not requiring discussion. Last year the School Board preapproved $37 million in recurring-vendor purchases in a similar manner. Only School Board Member Laura Zorc commented on the multimillion-dollar item and then voted no. The expenditure was approved 4-1, with all other board members going along with the staff request. “I am not comfortable giving spending authority over for Regions Bank and EE&G,” Zorc said. Regions Bank is the vendor for the district’s $7 million credit card, which had a balance of $6.8 million as of June 12, according to the School District’s recurring-vendor report. READ FULL STORY

Elite suspends some fall flights due to low demand
week of August 24, 2017

Four months ago, island resident Bruce Galvin purchased a pair of $400 round-trip tickets from Elite Airways, so he and his wife could fly from Vero Beach to Newark, N.J., and then catch a cruise ship that would take them on a scenic, September voyage to Quebec City. Two Sundays ago – a mere month before their scheduled departure date – an Elite representative called to tell the Galvins their flights had been cancelled. They weren’t alone. Elite has cancelled all of its Sunday and Thursday flights scheduled to take place between Vero Beach and Newark during September and October. According to the airline’s website, the non-stop service is scheduled to resume on Nov. 2. The airline continues to offer Monday and Friday service on the route, which remains Elite’s most popular. Elite Vice President David Dow described the cancellations as a “seasonal adjustment,” citing a “reduced demand” for service on that route during the off-season months. “All we did was reduce our schedule on a seasonal basis, which is something we do all the time,” Dow said. “When you’re running a business, you have to adapt and adjust to demand. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be in business long. It’s micro-economics. READ FULL STORY

Charters to finally get fairer share of tax dollars from School District
week of August 24, 2017

The five public charter schools in the Indian River County School District will get $2.1 million more in local property taxes this year due to a new state law and local-tax referendum. “It will make all the difference in the world,” said Gene Waddell, chairman of the board of Indian River Charter High School. “Last year we had to take money out of our operating budget to pay for capital expenses,” Waddell said. “Hopefully this year we can avoid that deficit in operations and make our mortgage and maintenance payments out of capital outlay.” “It will make a tremendous difference,” agreed Ken Miller, business and finance director for North County Charter Elementary. “We were stuck at spending about $7,300 per student for a long time. Now we’ll have about $8,000. That’s still half what the district spends, at $17,600 per student.” The local property tax revenue will be distributed among charter and traditional school students more evenly than in the past for two reasons. READ FULL STORY

FPL moves massive equipment through Vero streets in wee hours
week of August 24, 2017

What may be one of the largest vehicles ever seen in Vero Beach wound its way through the city in the wee hours of the morning last week. Escorted by the Florida Highway Patrol, bucket trucks and vehicles tasked with detecting any overhead obstacles like traffic lights that would need to be moved, the convoy carried the first of six loads of huge generators and turbines headed for Florida Power & Light’s Okeechobee Clean Energy Center. Since the combined weight of the equipment and the specialized trailer was estimated at 700 tons, the convoy was trailed by a team of Florida Department of Transportation bridge inspectors who had to ensure the safety of each bridge after the transport vehicle passed over. The components will become part of a combined-cycle natural gas generating plant FPL is building south of Yeehaw Junction adjacent the Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area. The Florida Public Service Commission approved the plant in 2016 and it’s expected to go online in mid-2019. READ FULL STORY

Zorc: School Board ‘voting blind’ on the budget
week of August 24, 2017

Indian River County School Board member Laura Zorc thinks the school district budget process should be much more transparent, but she did not get much backing from her fellow members. Zorc said, “We’re voting blind” on the nearly $280 million budget, of which $120 million is funded by local property taxes. School Board Member Dale Simchick disagreed with Zorc. “You can’t say blanketly we are voting blindly. It’s you who are uncomfortable.” Superintendent Mark Rendell gave four workshops on the budget, but Zorc said they “were so rushed there was no time for suggestions.” She noted that department heads did not give reports on how and why money for their departments is to be spent. Zorc said she met weekly with Assistant Superintendent of Finances Carter Morrison to fill in gaps and learn what she could, but that the meetings were mainly an exercise in frustration. “If I wanted more detail, Mr. Morrison said I have to ask [school district superintendent] Dr. Rendell if I can ask him that question. Then I would have to wait three weeks to get the information. It’s very unproductive. READ FULL STORY

Hospital room renovations will cost $2 million
week of August 24, 2017

Trustees of Indian River Medical Center got a preview last week of plans to renovate more than 200 patient rooms at a cost of $2 million, an average of $10,000 per room. While the group unanimously voted to approve the project, there was a palpable realization that the effort was akin to putting a shiny new coat of paint on a worn-out car. Chief Nursing Officer Linda Walton pointed out that rooms on floors 2-4 of the hospital are undersized and lack storage as well as some amenities. “The hospital was built close to 40 years ago, at a time when care was delivered in a different manner than it is today,” Walton told the trustees. “Delivery manner and experience for our patients has changed over time. There are a number of issues we are dealing with, and one of those issues is room size. “We are somewhat limited in that regard,” she continued. “The existing room size does provide a closed-in feeling, the facility is dated, and it poses some storage issues for patient equipment and providing a conducive healing environment.” READ FULL STORY

Firefighters sue over hearing loss; blame loud sirens
week of August 24, 2017

Are the sirens used by local fire trucks to clear traffic out of the way when speeding to a burning building too loud? Thirteen past and current employees of Indian River County Fire Rescue and Indian River Shores Fire Department filed a lawsuit this month, alleging hearing loss. The firefighters claim in an Aug. 7 civil suit that the jarring wail of the sirens in their fire engines is causing permanent damage to their hearing. Federal Signal Corporation manufactures the sirens used in fire engines in Indian River County and across much of the United States. The Oak Brook, Ill., company has faced thousands of similar lawsuits spanning nearly two decades. Litigation over the years has shown no consistent winner, favoring at times both the company and the firefighters. Nearly two-dozen Palm Beach County firefighters filed a similar suit this month. Federal Signal is not only liable, but also negligent, argues Carmen DeGisi, the lawyer who drafted the complaint in the local case. His firm, Bern Cappellli, in Conshochocken, Pa., has represented firefighters in many of the civil suits across the country. READ FULL STORY