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Palm Garden on list of troubled nursing homes
week of June 13, 2019

Vero residents were warned yet again last week to beware of Palm Garden of Vero Beach. The nursing home, part of a large for-profit Florida chain, has been named to a previously secret list of more than 400 problem facilities in the country, all of them with a documented pattern of poor care for their vulnerable residents. These skilled nursing facilities, deemed “persistently underperforming,” are candidates for the Special Focus Facility Initiative, a federally mandated watchdog program administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS. Another 90 problem nursing homes are actual participants in the program, which mandates double the number of inspections most nursing homes get. That means on-site surveyors drop in every six months, instead of every 12-15 months. But Palm Garden and the other 435 candidate nursing homes are not getting that added scrutiny. That’s because CMS says there isn’t enough funding to get them into the Special Focus program – even though borderline facilities such as Palm Garden are generally determined to be performing as poorly as nursing homes subject to extra inspections. READ FULL STORY

A week of discoveries: Sunken treasures and human remains
week of June 13, 2019

The Treasure Coast holds many mysteries, and whether you go looking for them or not, the land and the sea sometimes give up their secrets. Two crews were toiling away last week about 100 yards apart – one searching for sunken treasure and the other preparing to build $20 million worth of luxury, oceanfront condominiums. Both crews found something out of the ordinary. Yane Zana, developer of Blue at 8050 Ocean, said he’s hopeful his crew will be back at work moving dirt by the end of this week after their unexpected discovery of human remains on June 5. The community got site plan approval from the Indian River Shores Planning Zoning and Variance Board in May and there’s an open-air sales office already in place on the 4.7-acre parcel. At least five of the 21 planned units have already been sold, according to a ground-breaking pricing sheet, and Zane is eager to get the condos built. It was just after lunchtime when the backhoe operator fired up his machine. “They were digging footers for a site wall,” Zana said. READ FULL STORY

Super Stop store on Cardinal Drive sold; future plans unclear
week of June 13, 2019

A longtime beachside convenience store site has been sold, but future plans for the prime piece of island real estate remain unclear. The half-acre Super Stop convenience store property at 3106 Cardinal Drive was sold May 21 for an estimated $2.3 million to FT Uno LLC, a limited liability company of Indian River Shores resident Thomas O. Ryder, according to county records. No plans for the property’s redevelopment have been submitted to Vero Beach. Ryder’s attorney hinted in a letter to the city, however, that Ryder might be considering selling food on the premises. “The convenience store does not currently prepare or sell food items such as hamburgers, sandwiches, or pizza, by way of example,” Ryder’s attorney Bruce Barkett wrote the city on April 17. “Many convenience stores throughout the city and county do offer such food service as an accessory use,” he wrote. “Please confirm that the current or future owner could add preparation and sale of food items for consumption on or off premises (without a drive-in or drive-through) as an accessory use.” READ FULL STORY

Work starts on north island sidewalk and seawall project
week of June 13, 2019

Northern barrier island motorists can anticipate delays on State Road A1A for about a year during the construction of a new seawall and sidewalk along the Indian River Lagoon. The work will repair damage done by Hurricane Matthew and shore up the road to prevent future storm damage. Florida Department of Transportation was set to start construction last week on the one-mile long sea wall and finish next summer. The $5.4 million project includes repairs to the pavement on the crucial north-south artery, which leads to all bridges connecting the island with the mainland. It also features the installation of a new 8-foot-wide concrete sidewalk to replace the existing 6-foot-wide sidewalk. About 3,150 vehicles per day travel on A1A south of Sebastian Inlet, FDOT records show. Several thousand visitors also use the road each weekend to get to public beaches and Sebastian Inlet State Park. A1A was damaged along the narrow stretch of the barrier island near Ambersand Beach in October 2016 during Hurricane Matthew. The road and sidewalk had also been damaged by earlier storms. READ FULL STORY

Continuing teacher exodus is likely to cost school district $1 million this year
week of June 13, 2019

The exodus of teachers from Indian River schools continues with more teachers leaving in May, bringing the total for the year so to 86 who have submitted their resignations or retired, according to the latest figures provided by the district’s Human Resources office. That number is expected to rise as disgruntled teachers continue to seek jobs in other districts or leave the profession entirely – a trend that is likely to cost the school district $1 million or more this year to recruit and train replacements. A hostile work environment, an indifference to teacher concerns, sky-rocketing health insurance premium rates and low pay are some of the reasons more than 500 teachers have left the school district during the past four years, said Liz Cannon, head of the local teacher’s union. “Unfortunately, this is normal for us,” Cannon said. “We’ve been hemorrhaging teachers for years. The district has made it so unattractive to be a teacher here, if you can get out of here, why not?” READ FULL STORY

Shores’ new traffic light on A1A near Town Hall now operational
week of June 13, 2019

The fully activated pedestrian crosswalk and traffic light at the intersection of A1A and Fred Tuerk Drive in Indian River Shores is now live, and drivers will get a ticket if they run the red light. Shores Vice Mayor Bob Auwaerter sent out a press release last week to let the public know when traffic officials flipped the switch on the new on-demand equipment. “The Town for years had asked for a pedestrian crosswalk light and had gotten nowhere. It was only when my wife Nancy took up the cause that this project got done,” Auwaerter said. Nancy Auwaerter wrote to then-Gov. Rick Scott about the matter and he lit a fire under the project. So any pedestrian grateful to be able to stroll cross A1A by pushing a button rather than waiting for an opening in traffic can thank her. Any driver unhappy about encountering another red light on A1A can blame Scott. READ FULL STORY

Central Beach townhome residents caught between city and landlord
week of June 13, 2019

Residents at a Central Beach townhouse complex are angry that the city of Vero Beach has not yet repaired two garages that were severely damaged by a garbage truck eight months ago and appear near collapse. The smashed garages, located behind townhouses at 2732 and 2734 Cardinal Dr., are leaning precariously toward the parking lot’s only exit, creating significant safety issues, several residents said. “All it would take is a hurricane or fire to knock those garages over and it would block everyone from leaving or entering,” said resident Mary Pearson, who lives in the 2730 townhouse apartment. “It’s a death-trap waiting to happen.” City Manager Monte Falls said the city is trying to address the problem but has not had much cooperation from the property owner, Raymond Nadeau of Fort Pierce. “The city has an insurance carrier and has been trying to meet with the owner to reach an amicable agreement,” Falls said. “So far that hasn’t happened, but we’re working on it.” Nadeau, who was reached by phone, refused to discuss the issue. READ FULL STORY

Prosecutor offers prostitution sting ‘johns’ more lenient deal
week of June 13, 2019

Most of the 160-plus men arrested in Indian River County during a prostitution sting earlier this year could have the charges against them dropped if they agree to enter a diversion program now being offered by the State Attorney’s Office. Under the terms negotiated between prosecutors and defense lawyers, the accused men would have to sign a contract that requires them to pay more than $700 in fees, complete an online course on prostitution and human trafficking awareness, and undergo six months of probation-like supervision. Though defendants are not required to admit guilt, they must enter a “no contest” plea that prosecutors will hold in abeyance until all the conditions of the deal are met. If the men successfully complete the diversion program, the charges of soliciting prostitution will be dropped. However, if the men fail to satisfy any of the terms, prosecutors may use the pleas to convict them. Vero Beach attorney Andy Metcalf, who represents more than two dozen of the men, said the defendants can apply for early termination of the supervision part of the diversion program after 90 days if they have met all program’s conditions. He expects many of his clients to opt for diversion. READ FULL STORY

Duve’s accused slayer seeks to stage religious fast
week of June 6, 2019

Michael David Jones, a former PNC Wealth Management financial advisor awaiting trial for the 2014 murder of his girlfriend, nurse and Moorings resident Diana Duve, has been preparing for trial in his own bizarre way – by trying to convince the court to grant him a vegan diet to facilitate a religious fast. Jones, who had been in Sheriff Deryl Loar’s custody at the Indian River County Jail since completing two criminal trials in Broward County in 2016, sued Loar when a request on religious grounds for “a vegan or vegetarian diet” was denied. A law-school graduate, Jones is acting as his own attorney and has penned dozens of pages of hand-written pleadings from jail arguing his case to Circuit Judge Janet Croom. Jones did not claim he’s converted to the Buddhist or Hindu faiths in which avoiding animal products in favor of a plant-based diet is highly encouraged. Court records show that Jones instead claims the Bible tells him he must embark upon a vegetarian fast “to adhere to Petitioner’s religious mandates.” READ FULL STORY

Island in midst of luxury oceanfront building boom
week of June 6, 2019

If more proof is needed to demonstrate the growing appeal of Vero Beach, at least 14 major estate homes are under construction or about to break ground along the barrier island oceanfront – the most in memory. Spread out from Ambersand in the north to the southern edge of the 32963 ZIP code area, the houses range up to 20,000 square feet and have an approximate total value of $150 million, based on listing prices, recent oceanfront sales and expert estimates. “I don’t think there have been this many estate homes under construction simultaneously in my 38 years selling local oceanfront property,” says Michael Thorpe, whose brokerage Treasure Coast Sotheby’s International Realty handled land transactions for two of the 14 projects. Several are builder spec houses but most are custom homes being built for the families who plan to reside in them. “The oceanfront has always been the most desirable property since we have been in the business,” says Dale Sorensen Real Estate broker Matilde Sorensen, whose company was founded in the 1970s and who sells many of the most high-end oceanfront properties on the island. READ FULL STORY

Virgin Trains set to start work on tracks here by end of year
week of June 6, 2019

Construction on railroad tracks and crossings for the Virgin Trains USA passenger rail expansion through Indian River County will start before the end of the year, company officials said Friday. “I think this year, absolutely, but we’re just saying imminent at this point,” said Michael Hicks, a Virgin Trains USA spokesman, about the construction kickoff in Indian River County. Virgin Trains USA anticipates sending 32 trains per day through Indian River County at 110 mph when passenger service between Orlando and West Palm Beach begins. The passenger service started running last year between West Palm Beach and Miami and the company expects to have trains passing through Vero Beach by 2022. Florida East Coast Railway tracks and crossings will be upgraded from West Palm Beach to Cocoa to handle the passenger trains, Virgin Trains USA said May 21. The work includes the construction of a second main track and the replacement of 19 bridges. New tracks will be constructed along State Road 528 between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport to complete the route. READ FULL STORY

Ken Puttick, longtime auto dealer and developer, dead at 71
week of June 6, 2019

In his last days, Ken Puttick came closer than anyone to bringing the first full-size supermarket to Vero’s barrier island. Before that, he nearly brought the first assisted living facility to the island. And before that, Puttick twice proposed residential developments on the same land, a seven-acre tract he bought just east of the Wabasso Causeway. But it didn’t seem to matter what Puttick put before the town of Orchid, where he himself lived. His plans never passed muster; not with residents, not with officials. Change may come slowly in Orchid, but the town’s contest with one of its most tenacious landholders appears to have run the clock. Puttick, longtime area resident, former car dealer, father of four and grandfather of seven, died May 26 at age 71. He had suffered from multiple illnesses over the years, according to the family. Puttick leaves behind his wife of 41 years, Janine Puttick. They met when she came to Puttick’s dealership in New York to buy her first car after college. Puttick took one look at her and told his manager, “I’m going to marry that girl.” Janine’s decisiveness matched her husband’s. After he proposed on their first date, she accepted on the second. READ FULL STORY

Youth Sailing’s bid for expansion at Centennial Place termed premature
week of June 6, 2019

A popular sailing nonprofit hoping to snag prime property at "Centennial Place” once the city moves forward with redevelopment plans for the former electric power plant site ran into opposition from the City Council. The Youth Sailing Foundation of Indian River County recently made a pitch to the council to allow the quickly-expanding organization to build a larger facility on a 3.5-acre sliver of land on the southeast corner of the electric plant property at the west end of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge. The foundation, currently located nearby at 17 17th Street, has outgrown its current site with the expansion of programs for children with disabilities and several fleets of small sailboats, organization executive director Stu Keiller told the council at the board’s May 21 meeting. The foundation scoured the city’s waterways and landed at Centennial Place as its preferred spot because it has easy access to a wide section of the lagoon suitable for sailing and is close to where programs already operate, according to Keiller. He proposed constructing a $2.5 million facility at the Big Blue site. The facility would be turned over to the city with an endowment fund to maintain it, Keiller said. READ FULL STORY

Property values up substantially last year, but tourism revenue declined 2 percent
week of June 6, 2019

Indian River County got both good and bad economic news last week as officials announced property values are up for the fifth year in a row, rising $1.4 billion countywide, while tourism revenue dipped slightly for the first time in years, mainly due to nature acting up and causing problems. Tourism tax revenue in the county dropped 2 percent this fiscal year compared to the prior year, according to the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce. Chamber representatives attribute the decline to a much-publicized blue-green algae bloom that contaminated the lagoon south of Vero last year, an unprecedented red tide outbreak along the Gulf Coast and in Vero Beach itself, and Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that slammed Florida’s panhandle, ravaging Mexico Beach in October 2018. “A lot of people don’t understand Florida geography, so when they hear about a hurricane or red tide, they think it’s all over the entire state, so they stay away,” Allison McNeal, director of tourism for the chamber, said at the organization’s 11th annual tourism luncheon at Costa d’Este Beach Resort & Spa. READ FULL STORY

Seaweed on our beaches: ‘It looks like this will be the worst ever’
week of June 6, 2019

Gobs of that scratchy, stinky brown algae called sargassum are once again washing up on beaches from here to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Though the seaweed that clutters the island’s shoreline is non-toxic and serves as food and habitat for hundreds of marine creatures on both land and sea, it's becoming too much of a good thing, according to Dr. Brian LaPointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute who's been studying sargassum since 1983. "It looks like this will be the worst ever," LaPointe said of the current algae bloom. "It's more widespread now than at this time last year." On the plus side, the bloom isn't as thick along 32963 beaches as it is from Jupiter south. The seaweeds, which float around on the ocean's surface, are driven inshore by easterly winds where they form bigger piles along the Southeast Florida coast because that's where the peninsula juts out closest to the Gulf Stream carrying the weeds north. LaPointe says the Caribbean islands are getting the worst of it, with piles 10 feet high in mats the size of tennis courts. When it rots, it releases hydrogen sulfide gas that smells bad enough to drive residents inland and keep tourists away. READ FULL STORY

Central Beach burglaries tied to open garages
week of May 30, 2019

Two men have been arrested and are being held on high bonds after a rash of burglaries on the island and elsewhere in Vero Beach. While many homeowners invest in sophisticated home security systems and remote-access door-bell cameras to monitor their property, some neglected to take a very low-tech security measure that could have prevented at least 15 thefts in Central Beach and the Vero Beach Country Club area in the past few weeks. Garage doors standing wide open in the daytime made easy targets for thieves accused of walking in, sifting through residents’ property and lifting hundreds of dollars worth of tools, fitness equipment and other portable items, court records show. The silver lining is that one of those high-tech security cameras on Sunset Drive captured a suspect entering an open garage, giving police a lead. Police conducted what they described as a “lengthy investigation” into the thefts, leading to the arrest of Sean Ryan Brady, 30, and Roberto Sanchez Jr., 30, both of Vero Beach. READ FULL STORY

Island rental prices soar on high demand, low inventory
week of May 30, 2019

It’s getting harder and more expensive to rent a home on the barrier island, according to real estate agents who focus on matching potential lessees with available properties. The market is tightening for a several reasons, the agents said. Some seasonal residents are staying in Vero longer instead of heading back north right after Easter, while others – often aging Baby Boomers – are deciding now’s the time to make the island their permanent home, which removes their houses from the rental pool. At the same time, an influx of Cleveland Clinic doctors and other hospital employees relocating to Vero are seeking island rentals while they house hunt, and rental rates are rising. Craig Parham, a Berkshire Hathaway Home Services agent specializing in rentals, said he’s seeing property owners decide to retire permanently to their island homes, effectively taking their rental off the market. And those who continue to rent out their homes when they go north are increasing the rates he said, especially when old tenants move out and new ones move in. READ FULL STORY

Sheriff’s Office under fire in Twitter cyber-stalking probe
week of May 30, 2019

The school district employee recently cleared by prosecutors of a cyber-stalking charge is now questioning the claims her accuser, School Board Vice Chairman Tiffany Justice, made to Sheriff’s deputies, who used that information to launch their criminal investigation. Armed with Justice’s claims and a pair of disparaging social-media posts, Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers obtained a subpoena that forced Twitter to reveal the author’s identity – a tactic Vicki Sidles said was an unnecessary violation of her Fourth Amendment rights to privacy and unreasonable search and seizure. “They invaded my privacy with no probable cause, with no evidence of criminal activity whatsoever,” Sidles said last weekend. “The entire investigation was based on a false pretense. There was no ongoing harassment, as Tiffany Justice claimed. “The State Attorney’s Office issued a subpoena based on two tweets on back-to-back days in January, and the Sheriff’s Office used that subpoena to reveal my identity,” she added. “Now, that information is being used against me in another investigation.” READ FULL STORY

Treasure Coast Community Health to take over Gifford Health Center
week of May 30, 2019

A racially charged grilling by a Gifford community leader did not derail a vote last week by a Hospital District-appointed committee which recommended that Treasure Coast Community Health Care take over the Gifford Health Center this fall. A final vote by the full Hospital District board was set for Tuesday, after this paper’s press time. Assuming the vote went Treasure Coast’s way, effective Oct. 1, the low-cost healthcare provider will offer an expanded slate of services at the clinic that will include adult and pediatric primary care, mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment, an on-site lab and eventually a pharmacy. There will be extended hours two evenings a week and possibly on Saturdays. Two existing programs housed at the clinic will remain: Healthy Start, a pre- and post-natal care program, and We Care, which provides free specialized medical care to the poor through physician volunteers. Both will continue to operate under the auspices of the Health Department, which has run the clinic for the past 15 years. READ FULL STORY

School Board holds off on raising employee health insurance rates
week of May 30, 2019

The Indian River County School Board last week put off a vote on a staff recommendation to raise employee health insurance premiums 6.2 percent for the 2019-20 school year. Instead, the board indicated it would approve the purchase of “Stop Loss” insurance during its May 28 meeting, which would protect the district’s self-funded health insurance program from going bankrupt if too many employees file large insurance claims next school year. If approved this week as expected, the district would pay $746,068 to QBE Insurance Corporation to provide Stop Loss insurance, which would cover any health insurance claim that exceeds $225,000, said Mary Mercado, an employee benefits specialist for the district. The insurance would go into effect July 1 and extend through June 30, 2020, at which time the board would need to decide whether to renew it. The insurance protection is needed to help continue and stabilize the district’s self-funded health insurance program which has struggled in recent years, Mercado and other staff in the district’s employee benefits department told board members during a recent presentation. READ FULL STORY

Vero given 90-day notice in Shores dispute
week of May 30, 2019

Vero Beach is now on a 90-day clock to correct what Town of Indian River Shores officials say is the overcharging of its residents, violating a 2012 utility franchise agreement for reuse water. The Shores’ attorney, Louis B. “Buck” Vocelle, sent a Notice of Default to Mayor Val Zudans on Friday after responses from city officials to Shores’ requests for rate relief amounted to nothing more than the city politely digging in its heels. The Shores’ 15-year franchise agreement with Vero ties the Shores’ rates for reuse irrigation water to Indian River County Utilities’ published rates. But on March 1 when Indian River County’s rates went down from 67 cents per 1,000 gallons to 21 cents per 1,000 gallons, Vero refused to reduce rates for its reuse customers in the Shores. To date, the city is still charging the higher 67-cent rate. The difference amounts to about $272,000 per year. “During said 90 days, the town will continue to negotiate in good faith with the city towards resolution, and would welcome the opportunity to participate in a non-binding mediation with a Florida Circuit Court Certified Mediator,” Vocelle wrote. READ FULL STORY

Safety grade of Sebastian River Medical Center soars
week of May 23, 2019

Two years after it was acquired by Steward Health, Sebastian River Medical Center is celebrating something of a medical miracle: It has turned around a disastrous safety score in just one year, going from an F to an A in the Washington-based Leapfrog Group’s Hospital Safety Grade. That F grade from Leapfrog was a tough pill to swallow last spring when the hospital’s new owners, Steward Health, had to suffer for mistakes occurring mostly on the watch of the prior owner, Community Health Systems. Steward took over in April 2017, but it is only now seeing significant amounts of data from a timeframe under its management. Florida’s hospitals generally fared better in the much-watched Leapfrog ratings this spring, pushing the state up two spots to 17th in the nation. Leapfrog analyzed 2,600 hospitals nationwide; 32 percent got an A rating. Nationwide, less than 1 percent of 2,600 hospitals were assigned an F. A year ago, Sebastian River was one of only two in Florida receiving an F. The turnaround from F to A is unique in the nation, according to Steward. READ FULL STORY

Prison stay ending for Heaton, but sentence not over
week of May 23, 2019

Vero Beach Hotel & Spa founder George Heaton’s six-month stay in a federal facility is coming to an end, but a three-year period during which he must satisfy obligations to the court, to banks and to “condotel” owners is just beginning. According to Federal Bureau of Prisons records, the 75-year-old developer is scheduled for release from a Miami halfway house on June 1, though sources say he has already been seen in Vero Beach, attending a mediation session in a civil lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who own condo units at the hotel. As part of a plea deal that included his testimony against co-defendants, Heaton in 2018 was convicted of providing false statements related to mortgage transactions that enabled construction of the hotel to continue during the housing downturn. According to prosecutors, Heaton, his bookkeeper, his attorney and other associates falsified loan applications and other documents so buyers could qualify to purchase units at the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa between 2006 and 2009, when the hotel was under development. READ FULL STORY

St. Sebastian River still in trouble, despite cleanup efforts
week of May 23, 2019

Of the eight tributaries that flow into the troubled Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie River gets the most attention as a waterway in desperate need of cleanup. But the St. Sebastian River, which draws far less scrutiny, has serious water quality problems of its own. Six years ago, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection declared parts of the river “impaired” due to depleted oxygen and high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that feed destructive algae blooms. Tim Glover, president of Friends of the St. Sebastian River who lives in Micco on the river’s north prong, says he hasn’t seen any improvement since then, despite major cleanup efforts. “I’d say there’s been a degradation,” Glover said. “Fishermen don’t get the kind of catches that they used to. There have been oyster die-offs over the years.” Dr. Grant Gilmore, founder and chief scientist at Estuarine Coastal and Ocean Science, Inc., said he did not spot a single fish during a recent visit to the north prong where he’s been sampling fish for decades. What’s more, “the whole bottom was covered with cyanobacteria; all the vegetation they depend on was gone,” he said. READ FULL STORY

Island turtle nests up 60 percent over last year at this time
week of May 23, 2019

The island’s turtle nesting season is “off to a great start,” up 60 percent from last year at this time, according to Indian River County’s new sea turtle coordinator Quintin Bergman. As of May 17, Bergman reported a total of 533 nests along the county’s 22.5 miles of beaches that stretch from Sebastian Inlet to Round Island Park. Of those, 521 nests were laid by loggerheads and 12 by leatherbacks. No green turtle nests have been observed yet. At this time last year, turtle trackers counted 303 loggerhead nests and 22 leatherbacks for a total of 325. As for the absence of green turtles? “Usual and expected,” Bergman told Vero Beach 32963. “Last year, the first green nest arrived June 10.” Nesting season officially opened March 1 and will officially close Oct. 31, though the animals follow their own schedules. Bergman said nesting typically peaks in July. READ FULL STORY

Spa cases on hold as prosecutors appeal suppression of video evidence against ‘johns’
week of May 23, 2019

Prosecutors showed up in court on Monday morning to ask for a continuance in the cases they are pursuing against dozens of men accused of soliciting prostitution at two spas in Indian River County. The action came after prosecutors were hit with unfavorable rulings on Friday, when County Court Judges David Morgan and Nicole Menz decided that surveillance videos recorded by law enforcement agencies at the massage parlors could not be used as evidence against the men, who were arrested in February. The State Attorney’s Office filed notice of appeal after the judges ruled, intending to ask a panel of three circuit judges to overturn the lower-court decisions and allow prosecutors to use the spa videos at trials – or as leverage in making plea deals. In the meantime, the continuance was granted, putting the cases on hold until the appeal is decided. Assistant State Attorney Steve Wilson said the circuit judges probably wouldn’t hear the appeal for at least two months as both prosecutors and defense lawyers prepare their arguments. So these cases will drag on. READ FULL STORY

Vero Beach spa worker accused of prostitution remains in jail on $150,500 bond
week of May 23, 2019

A 51-year-old woman arrested in Vero Beach for prostitution in February will remain in jail on a $150,500 bond for the time being. Circuit Court Judge Daniel Vaughn on May 15 postponed a decision on a motion to reduce bond for Chinese national Yan Xu to give her attorney, James Long, an opportunity to locate Xu’s sister. “I have a younger sister who lives in [Los Angeles, California],” Xu told Vaughn through a translator. “I don’t have phone number or address.” Vaughn indicated he might consider reducing the bond so that Xu can get out of jail if her attorney can locate the sister and the sister agrees to let Xu live with her while she awaits trial. When Vaughn asked Xu if she had enough money to pay a reduced bond of $100,000, she laughed nervously and responded in broken English, “no, no, much too high.” Xu told Vaughn that she has between “$3,000 to $4,000” in her savings account. She said her sister might be able to contribute “a couple of thousand” dollars. READ FULL STORY

Health Department to stop providing primary care
week of May 23, 2019

The Health Department of Indian River County will cease providing primary care and dental care at its main office at the county administration complex – as well as at the Gifford Health Center – effective August 15. The department will continue providing other public health services, including in the areas of HIV/AIDs, infectious diseases, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), family planning, STDs, school health and community education, among others. The Health Department’s director, Miranda Hawker, called her department’s provision of primary care “unsustainable” after funding cuts to county health departments statewide. In addition, Medicaid reimburses county health departments at a lower level than other low-cost clinics receiving federal grants. And, unlike those clinics, the Health Department isn’t allowed to seek philanthropy dollars. Hawker said that, going forward, “TCCH (Treasure Coast Community Health), Whole Family Health, and the VNA will provide [primary and dental care] services to our clients.” The Health Department is the county division of the Florida Department of Health that in turn reports to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Locally, it has long received some money from the Hospital District. But a 2016 change in funding methodology resulted in a 60 percent cut in that funding, according to the Health Department. READ FULL STORY

Vero’s beaches to finally get infusion of sand
week of May 16, 2019

The City of Vero Beach’s eroded shoreline will be getting a major infusion of sand this fall – from Tracking Station Park all the way to Castaway Cove – partially paid for by funds included in the $91.1 billion budget approved last week by the Florida Legislature. If Gov. Ron DeSantis does not veto the line item in the budget, County Administrator Jason Brown said the county will receive $1.7 million in state funding, which will help pay for the engineers, biologists, miners and truckers needed to add sand to beaches and dunes all along the city’s oceanfront. Brown said FEMA has committed $931,448.63 to the project. The county will fund the balance of the expected $4.8 million cost. Vero is prohibited by charter from using its own dollars for anything but emergency dune repair after a storm as a result of a referendum in the 1980s. But the county collects bed tax money from hotels within the Vero city limits and uses part of those funds for beach sand replenishment projects up and down the island, including in Vero Beach. READ FULL STORY

FAU insider: Red ink led to grab for Harbor Branch funds
week of May 16, 2019

Florida Atlantic University officials conspired to take control of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation’s $72 million endowment because its own research division had failed to recruit enough researchers bringing big grants with them and “was operating in the red,” according to a former top university administrator. James Wilkie, who served as Budget Director of the Division of Research and Assistant Vice President of Budget Finance for the Division of Research until February 2018, made the allegation in an affidavit added to Harbor Branch Foundation’s two-year-old lawsuit against FAU on May 5. According to Wilkie’s affidavit, Daniel Flynn, FAU’s Vice President of Research, began plotting to take control of the Foundation in late 2016 because the University’s research division was losing money, and was not going to reach its goal of hiring researchers who could bring with them $100 million in federal, state, local and private research grants. “As a result of the failure to hire researchers, the Division of Research was not achieving its budgeted revenue stream,” Wilke wrote. READ FULL STORY

Treasure Coast Community Health also trying to serve island patients in need
week of May 16, 2019

Treasure Coast Community Health Care, which as a federally qualified health center serves low-income residents throughout Indian River County, has quietly opened a new clinic with a slightly different patient group in mind: adults, including those living on Vero’s barrier island, who are either on Medicare and/or have high deductible insurance. The spacious, newly renovated clinic, which began welcoming patients in December for lower-cost medical and behavioral healthcare, is located in a medical office complex a couple of blocks east of Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital. The clinic – which Treasure Coast CEO Vicki Soule points out is close to the Barber Bridge – was opened with an eye to potential patients living in Central Beach who could be part of what the United Way calls the “Alice” population – Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed. Or they could be older people who have lost a spouse and find themselves struggling to make ends meet with a sudden drop in income or benefits. “The reality is that we can all identify someone we know who is presumed to be well-off and yet if you were to open their refrigerators you’d be surprised and perhaps appalled at how little there is inside,” Soule said. READ FULL STORY

School Board hires Susan Moxley as interim superintendent
week of May 16, 2019

The Indian River County School Board voted unanimously to hire Susan Moxley as the district’s interim superintendent during a special board meeting on Monday afternoon. Board Vice Chairman Tiffany Justice made the motion to hire Moxley, which was seconded by board member Jacqueline Rosario. “I think Dr. Moxley will do great things for us,” Rosario said. “I’m looking forward to working with her.” Moxley served for a decade as a Florida school superintendent before retiring two years ago. The board is expected to approve Moxley’s contract during its Tuesday evening business meeting. Terms of the contract already pre-approved by the board include an annual salary of $161,000 – the same salary paid to Superintendent Mark Rendell, who will officially step down on May 24. Board Chairman Laura Zorc said Moxley will serve as the interim superintendent for six to 12 months, which will give the board time to launch an extensive search for and hire a permanent superintendent. Moxley is expected to begin work at the district on May 20, which will give her a few days to become familiar with the district’s operations before Rendell departs. READ FULL STORY

Fletcher charged with aggravated assault
week of May 16, 2019

State Attorney Bruce Colton’s office has filed a formal information document with the court charging former Vero Beach mayor A. Craig Fletcher with aggravated assault with a firearm, a third-degree felony, but Fletcher maintains he’s done nothing wrong, and his lawyer says he’ll prove the alleged incident was justified under Florida law. Fletcher was arrested and charged by police with felony aggravated assault on March 29. The formal information document means the State Attorney’s office has reviewed the merits of the case and believes there is enough evidence to bring Fletcher to trial and convict him. “We have entered a plea of not guilty in the case,” Andrew Metcalf, Fletcher’s Vero Beach-based defense counsel, said on Monday. “Over the next several months we will be setting depositions in this case and preparing for a potential ‘stand your ground’ hearing and trial.” Fletcher is accused of answering the front door of his McAnsh Park home with a revolver and pointing it at a landscaping contractor, who had knocked on the door. The alleged victim, Soterios Bouchlas, is a partner in the landscaping company that had been working at Fletcher’s next-door neighbor’s home when a dispute arose, with Fletcher accusing the landscape workers of damaging flowers on his property. READ FULL STORY

Oslo Road interchange: Last big I-95 project here
week of May 16, 2019

Interstate 95 will remain three lanes in each direction in Indian River County through at least 2045 because traffic projections show no need for widening, state transportation officials said last week. And once FDOT completes the $45 million Oslo Road Interchange, estimated for 2027, I-95 in Indian River County won’t require any more major work for about two decades. “We’re not anticipating any need to widen I-95 in Indian River County,” said FDOT consultant Eric Penfield, of RS&H of Fort Lauderdale. “It should work pretty well through 2045.” About 45,000 vehicles per day travel on I-95 in Indian River County, state records show. FDOT anticipates widening I-95 to eight lanes the entire length of Martin County north to Okeechobee Road/State Road 70 in St. Lucie County, records show. READ FULL STORY

Vero not budging on reuse water rates for the Shores
week of May 16, 2019

In one of his first official duties after being selected Vero Beach city manager by a unanimous vote of the City Council, Monte Falls politely rebuffed Indian River Shores’ demand for lower reuse water rates. Falls’ letter said nothing the Shores hadn’t already been told by former city manager Jim O’Connor and Vero water-sewer director Rob Bolton. His May 10 letter just says “no” to the demand for lower rates in a more nicely worded fashion, emphasizing how the City of Vero Beach “has every desire to fulfill the letter of our franchise agreement and maintain good relations with the town.” Like O’Connor, Falls is waiting for the results of a rate study unilaterally commissioned by the city to determine what to charge the Shores for reuse water. This new Vero rate study, the city says, is designed to determine Vero’s cost of bringing reuse water to the Shores, but the Shores says that information is immaterial because the water agreement between the city and the town says the city will match county reuse water rates. Indian River County Utilities on March 1 lowered county rates from 67 cents per 1,000 gallons to 21 cents per 1,000 gallons. The difference between the 67 cents and the 21 cents amounts to more than a quarter-million dollars a year, which will either go to Vero utilities or stay in the Shores. READ FULL STORY

Interim school superintendent pick seen near
week of May 9, 2019

The School Board is on a fast-track to hire an interim superintendent, hoping to pick one by May 14 to replace Superintendent Mark Rendell, who will step down May 24. “Ideally, we would like to have the interim begin working Monday, May 20 so that they will have a week to work with Dr. Rendell and become familiar with the job,” Board Chairman Laura Zorc said during a special board meeting on May 1. The board agreed to seek applications from May 1 to May 8. It will then meet publicly from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., this Friday, May 10, to review resumes and decide which candidates board members want to interview. Finalist interviews, also open to the public, will be held 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Monday, May 13. A special business meeting will be held that afternoon from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. so that the board can decide which candidate it wants to hire and begin contract negotiations. READ FULL STORY

Founder of Village Beach Market dies at 73
week of May 9, 2019

Jerry “Butch” Keen, a lifelong grocer who expanded the family business from mainland Vero to the barrier island when he opened the Village Beach Market in 1980, died last week. He was 73. Alma Lee Loy, affectionately known as the “First Lady of Vero Beach,” fondly recalled shopping at one of Keen’s supermarkets on the mainland in the 1960s and ’70s, when Keen would walk up and ask if she needed assistance. “He had a quiet way about him, but when you went into his store, he was always helpful and always had a smile on his face,” Loy said Monday, one day before Keen’s funeral at Crestlawn Cemetery. “I knew Jerry for a lot of years, and he was a really fine man. “It was a joy to have him as a friend.” Keen was surrounded by his family when he died April 29 in Vero Beach. According to his son, Jason, Keen succumbed to complications from a brief battle with a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma, which wasn’t diagnosed until January, shortly after he discovered a lump in his neck. READ FULL STORY

Construction of homes at east end of Wabasso bridge now underway
week of May 9, 2019

Construction is finally underway at the subdivision formerly known as Michael Creek, on the right as you come onto the island off the eastern end of the Wabasso bridge, which was plated and approved more than a decade ago. Now called Orchid Cove, the 57-home development on the south side of route 510 has been revived by Gainesville developer Michael Trematerra and GHO Homes. Concrete block walls are going up for the first of two model homes planned by GHO, and company president Bill Handler says both models and a handful of inventory homes will be complete by late fall, when snowbirds return for Vero’s busy winter season. “I expect we will have some ‘solds’ by that time, as well,” Handler says. Handler has a contract with Trematerra to purchase 37 lots in the subdivision, and has closed on the first batch. The developer’s company, Parkwood Distinctive Homes, will build the other 20 houses, which includes all of the waterfront homes. “We already have two homes under contract,” says Janyne Kenworthy, broker-associate with Treasure Coast Sotheby’s International Realty, who is handling sales of the Parkwood homes. READ FULL STORY

Windsor golf course, grass gone, being restored to Robert Trent Jones design
week of May 9, 2019

While last weekend’s rains greened-up much of the barrier island, things are pretty brown these days at Windsor. Most of the grass on the club’s golf course has been “scalped away,” as a first step in restoring the course to the original Robert Trent Jones design. “The course is almost 30 years old and, over time, the original design changes as a result of the maintenance,” Windsor General Manager Bob Gallagher said. “Typically, the greens get smaller as you cut the fringes. The fringes then get longer. Even the shapes of the bunkers change as they break down. “So we’re not redesigning the course,” he added. “We’re not adding any new design features, other than a few forward tees for family play, which won’t impact the layout at all. What we’re doing now is restoring the original footprint of the course, as it was designed.” Gallagher said the course also will be re-surfaced “wall to wall” with Celebration, a drought- and shade-tolerant grass, and with “tried-and-true” Tiff Eagle Bermuda grass on the greens. READ FULL STORY

Indian River County high schools get poor ratings
week of May 9, 2019

If you’ve seen U.S. News & World Report’s “2019 Best High Schools” list, which was published last week, you can understand why Mark Rendell told a local radio audience he’s “thrilled” about his new job. Indian River County’s outgoing schools superintendent is leaving later this month to become the principal at Cocoa Beach Junior/Senior High School, which was No. 39 in the magazine’s rankings of Florida’s 555 public high schools. He’ll leave behind a district he led for four years in which neither of the county’s two large high schools – Vero Beach and Sebastian River – cracked the top 300 in the state. Vero Beach, the county’s largest school with an enrollment of 2,892 students in grades 9 through 12, was ranked No. 305 in Florida. Sebastian River, with 1,824 students, checked in at No. 336 in the state. Indian River Charter, with an enrollment of only 653 students, fared the best among the county’s high schools, coming in at No. 273 in Florida. As a group, the three local high schools didn’t measure up to those in neighboring counties. READ FULL STORY

Effort to strip specialty license plate funds from Harbor Branch fails
week of May 9, 2019

Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation will get to keep more than $1.4 million in annual revenue from two specialty license plates for at least one more year. A proposed amendment to House and Senate specialty license plate bills that would have redistributed the proceeds from sales of the "Protect Wild Dolphins" and "Protect Florida Whales" tags among a statewide coalition of marine mammal rescue and research organizations – including Harbor Branch – died just before the close of the 2019 legislative session last Saturday. Members of the One Ocean One Health Research Conservation Institute based at Georgia Aquarium's conservation field station in Marineland, Florida had sought the legislation that would have designated their group to administer the tag revenues paid by Florida drivers. But the 2019 legislative session ended with no action. That means the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation – the institute's fund raising and charitable arm – will maintain control of the money and keep awarding it exclusively to Harbor Branch scientists for research, conservation and public outreach. READ FULL STORY

No Vacancy? Top jobs at Vero Beach City Hall filled
week of May 9, 2019

Vero Beach hung out a “no vacancy” sign on City Hall this week after filling the two top spots on its management team. The council on Tuesday decided to halt the headhunter search for a new city manager and instead hired Vero Public Works Director Monte Falls, 61, for that job. Falls has been serving as interim city manager since former City Manager Jim O’Connor’s retirement, same as he did for nine months in 2010 and 2011 while city officials searched for and eventually found O’Connor. The council also voted to hire John Turner of Fort Myers Beach as city attorney. A partner with Peterson Law Group, he has been town attorney for Fort Myers Beach and senior assistant attorney for Lee County. READ FULL STORY

Laura Riding Jackson house will be moved soon to college campus
week of May 9, 2019

Plans to move the historic Laura Riding Jackson House from the Environmental Learning Center to the Vero Beach campus of Indian River State College have been finalized, and the move is scheduled to take place at the end of the month. Last week, officials from the college and the Laura Riding Jackson House Foundation met to look over the site on the college campus where the 110-year-old house and its original pole barn will be relocated. The house is significant as an example of traditional Florida ‘cracker’ architecture and because it was the longtime home of renowned 20th century poet and literary entrepreneur Laura Riding Jackson. The college was one of several local organizations that offered to host the house after its removal from the ELC campus. The college board voted to give the foundation a 15-year, renewable lease agreement at no cost. “That is what has made it possible for us to do all this,” said foundation Board President Marie Stiefel. READ FULL STORY

School Board looks to move forward after Rendell’s departure
week of May 2, 2019

Now that School Superintendent Mark Rendell has resigned, several School Board members said they hope his departure this month will allow the school district to begin healing from the many controversies and scandals of the past four years. “I wish Dr. Rendell and his family all the best in their future endeavors,” said School Board member Jacqueline Rosario. “At this time, it is critical the board remains focused in our efforts to heal and move the district forward. I have no doubt we will continue to be united toward this end.” Board member Teri Barenborg echoed those sentiments in a short, written statement: “I wish him the best in his future endeavors and thank him for his service to our school community over these past four years.” The board took a first step in moving forward by voting April 23 to join the Florida Association of School Boards, which will help guide the district’s search for an interim superintendent and a new permanent superintendent. READ FULL STORY

2 Vero nursing homes get worst rating–again
week of May 2, 2019

Two Vero nursing homes were once again awarded one star out of a possible five by Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare rating system – the worst possible grade – when the new ratings were published last Wednesday. Consulate Health Care, sued for negligence two dozen times in a decade, and Palm Garden of Vero Beach, facing a spate of lawsuits itself and starting its fourth month on the state’s nursing home watch list, also both got one star in the previous ratings. Both local nursing homes, part of large for-profit chains, ironically are located virtually in the shadow of Cleveland Clinic Indian River – a hospital now affiliated with the second-best health system in the world, according to Newsweek’s just-released ranking. Pennsylvania-based Consulate is the sixth largest nursing home chain in the nation and the largest in Florida, where six of its properties, but not the one in Vero, are on the same state watch list as Vero’s Palm Garden. Seven of the Palm Garden chain’s 14 locations in Florida received only one or two stars on the Medicare Nursing Home Compare site when the new ratings came out April 24. READ FULL STORY

Grace Rehab remains county’s top nursing home
week of May 2, 2019

The county’s top nursing homes shone once again with Grace Rehabilitation Center earning a five-star rating overall from Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare grading system – the highest possible score and in line with its ratings over the past five years. Tiny, 24-bed Florida Baptist Retirement Center, the only nonprofit nursing home in the county, tied with 120-bed Willowbrooke Court at Indian River Estates with four stars each. Steward Sebastian River Medical Center’s rehab center overall rating rose from three stars last year to five stars. Randall Rees, executive director of the five-star Grace Rehab for the past 10 years, credits the nursing home’s parent company with giving the local organization the flexibility to “serve from our hearts,” he said. “It’s a special company that allows us to do what we need to do. We try to do the right thing every day by the patients. If we’re taking care of that, the numbers fall in line.”

John’s Island ‘not giving up’ on pipeline project
week of May 2, 2019

A controversial proposal to run a reuse water pipeline beneath the Indian River Lagoon to provide irrigation water for John’s Island – which was blocked by the County Commission on a 3-to-2 vote last week – may go back to commissioners in a month or two. “We’re not giving up on the subaqueous line because we still feel it’s the best option for . . . [our] needs,” said John’s Island General Manager Michael Korpar. “That’s the route we’re still shooting for.” The fate of the $6 million pipeline appears to hinge on the results of a title search on Hole in the Wall island to determine whether the county owns the right-of-way once occupied by the Old Winter Beach Road Bridge. Commissioners voted on April 23 to reject John’s Island’s easement request mainly over concerns about the right-of-way ownership and the likelihood of legal challenges. In response, John’s Island’s legal team is now trying to acquire title insurance indicating the county owns the right-of-way on the island in the lagoon, Korpar said in an interview Friday. READ FULL STORY

Vero Utilities: No plan for replacing old water pipes
week of May 2, 2019

A slightly scary truth emerged last week for Vero Beach Utilities customers who live in older homes, or in older neighborhoods: The city has no plan, and scant funding, to replace miles of aging – and in many cases, deteriorating – water pipes that carry drinking water to thousands of residents. The issue came up during a Vero Utilities Commission meeting after complaints from a handful of residents on Silver Moss Drive in John’s Island who had been plagued by yellow drinking water caused by a span of old galvanized pipe. After Indian River Shores put pressure on Vero and commissioned engineering work at its own expense to map out the problem pipe, the city dug up the pipe and replaced it. But town officials speculated that it was only a matter of time before the yellow water – or worse – started popping up in other older neighborhoods all over the town and up and down the barrier island. READ FULL STORY

Harbor Branch could lose $1.4 million if vanity license plate money redistributed
week of May 2, 2019

The legislature was expected to decide this week whether the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation will lose $1.4 million in annual revenue from sale of picturesque license plates vehicle owners buy to support dolphin and whale research and rescue efforts. A coalition of dolphin research and conservation organizations is pushing hard for an amendment to the state's specialty license plate law that would give each of them a piece of the revenue pie from the "Protect Wild Dolphins" and "Protect Florida Whales" license plates. Currently, all the money from the plates goes to the Harbor Branch Foundation, which uses it exclusively to fund programs at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. The Foundation says the money is used for research, education and outreach benefitting marine mammals throughout the state. But members of One Ocean One Health Research Conservation Institute based at Georgia Aquarium's conservation field station in Marineland, Florida, say their nonprofit should take over distributing the funds to Florida organizations that respond to dolphin and whale strandings and conduct scientific research on the animals. READ FULL STORY

Polish-American Club files $1 million suit in aftermath of coup
week of May 2, 2019

The Polish-American Social Club of Vero Beach has filed a $1 million lawsuit against three West Palm Beach attorneys, alleging that the attorneys directed a coup by a handful of rogue members who took over the club and its property for several years. Attorneys named in the lawsuit, which was filed April 4 in the 19th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, include Lynne Hampton, Jay Fleisher and Scott W. Zappolo. The attorneys could not be reached for comment. “These three attorneys directed the efforts to take over the club,” said Bill Summers, a club supporter who helped the original members regain control of the club following a 4-year court battle. “It was an expensive legal fight that cost more than $300,000.” The lawsuit alleges that Hampton and Fleisher “breached their legal duty to plaintiff by devising a plan to take all of the club’s assets and transfer them to another corporation for no consideration and which culminated in the loss of those assets.” READ FULL STORY