When nearly 5,000 petitions arrived in mailboxes last week asking Vero Beach electric customers to support ramped-up regulation of the utility, Rep. Debbie Mayfield came under fire from city and county leaders accusing her of political grandstanding.
County Commissioner Gary Wheeler called the direct mail piece “low class politics.” Interim Electric Utility Director John Lee termed it “a very wellcrafted, welldone piece of misinformation.” City Manager Jim Gabbard said had he been informed, “We could have helped her and prevented a lot of angst on the part of the people who received this.”
Even Vero Councilman Brian Heady pummeled Mayfield for using public funds to print and mail what he views as “a total waste of tax dollars,” inferring that the flier was a self-serving campaign ad.
A lot of heat over a flier asking residents to support placing the city’s electric utility under Florida Public Service Commission regulation as a public utility, just like Florida Power and Light, sent by a woman who along with her late husband Rep. Stan Mayfield, has been working on this issue for nearly three years.
About 80 percent of the City of Vero Beach electric customers live in Mayfield’s district. A majority of them can’t vote for the city decision makers. Those folks, the ones who have been chanting “taxation without representation,” are the ones Mayfield targeted with her petition mailing.
The November municipal election can attest to the rage already felt by the citizens overwhelmed with electric bills sometimes three times higher than they’d ever paid, and the city’s unwillingness and county’s inability to do anything to help.
Two days after mailers hit mailboxes last week, Mayfield’s offi ce reported it already had received more than 300 completed petitions back. It would seem that she is merely refl ecting, rather than stoking, the anger and frustration.
Mayfield said she is up for re-election in November, but at this point it does not appear she is facing a tough race. To date, no one has filed to run against her to represent State House District 80.
Mayfield’s battle is against the City of Vero Beach Electric Utility.
“This is nothing personal and I told the City Manager that it was not personal,” Mayfield said, describing her dealings with Jim Gabbard and other city officials as very cordial.
Gabbard requested a meeting with her so he could “express the city’s disappointment,” said Mayfield. She met with Gabbard and brought with her one of the Vero Beach utility’s most vocal critics, local accountant Glenn Heran.
“Dr. Faherty and Glenn Heran have really been the ones who have kept this going, I’m impressed with their knowledge and the depth of their understanding of what’s been going on,” she said. “I feel that our constituents are pretty smart and I rely on them a lot. There’s no way a legislator can know everything.”
Rather than stirring the pot, Mayfield said she and her staff would much rather solve the problem and have conditions improve for their constituents.
“I think it is important to understand that our office sends out correspondence on a daily basis in response to inquiries made by my constituents. These inquiries are not just about the utility issue but also seek assistance with foreclosures, unemployment, consumer complaints, public assistance and other issues or problems constituents are experiencing,” Mayfield said “In the month of December alone my offi ce opened over 30 constituent cases which do not deal with the utilities.
“With that being said, the utility issue has dominated all other request for assistance this past year and has generated the most communication from constituents,” she said.
There is no doubt that Mayfield has raised the ire of the City of Vero Beach by taking on the electric issue. Vice Mayor Abell even accused her of not being around very much.
“I am here as much as I need to be here, this is not a full-time job,” Mayfield said, pointing out that she also runs a business and holds down other employment to support her three sons. “As a representative, it’s my duty to be out in the community, not just in the office and I also do a lot of work from home.”
Mayfield has backed legislation “requiring that the city set rates that are fair, just and reasonable” and be governed under Florida’s regulator body, the Public Service Commission.
Under full regulation as a “public utility,” the city would need to justify its rates and revenue requirements to the PSC. Over time, this could jeopardize the practice of using millions of electric revenue dollars to pad the general fund and keep property taxes low for city residents.
Mayfield said she has no problem with the city getting a reasonable return on the electric utility.
“They are entitled to make a profit, but it’s a matter of what is the appropriate profit that they should be able to take out to subsidize the city operations.”
Tinkering with the numbers
The current controversy could have been avoided if the City of Vero Beach was able to make up its mind about how it counted its customers.
In the spring of 2008, Rep. Stan Mayfield became determined to bring some relief and some representation to all the City of Vero Beach electric customers – even though it was too late in the legislative session to introduce a bill specific to Vero Beach.
He and south barrier island resident Stephen Faherty came up with the idea of creating an independent utility that would take over management of the electric utility, removing fi nal decision- making authority on rates from the Vero Beach City Council and the City Manager’s office.
In the closing days of the session, Mayfi eld pushed through House Bill 7135, which he thought would require the city to put the following question to a vote:
“Should a separate electric utility authority be created to operate the business of the electric utility in the affected municipal electric utility?”
The bill defi ned an “affected municipal electric utility” as any municipal electric utility which serves at least two cities within one county, which has between 30,000 and 35,000 customers, and does not have a service territory that extends beyond its home county as of Sept. 30, 2007.
Prior to introducing the legislation, Mayfield worked with the PSC to obtain a current, accurate customer count for the Vero Beach electric utility. When the PSC asked the city to provide that number, it said it had close to 34,000 customers on the books, based on the number of electric meters in the system.
“Stan wrote the legislation with a range of 30,000 to 35,000 so that it would only affect the City of Vero Beach, based on their own numbers that the city gave the PSC,” Rep. Mayfield said. “Once passed, then the city decided that it would change the way it counted its customers.
They went back on their own numbers and told the PSC that’s no longer the way we’re counting customers.” What the city did was decide to only count “named customers” instead of meters. The resulting number it came up with was less than 28,000, leading to the city’s claim that the Mayfi eld bill did not apply to Vero Beach. (During this summer’s rate study, Vero’s customer total jumped back up to 34,000- plus when counted by consultant Public Resources Management Group.)
The late Rep. Stan Mayfi eld was quoted on Aug. 22, 2008 in the local daily paper as saying, “To sit there and say this doesn’t apply to them is absolutely bogus, but if they can fi nd a technicality to get out of it they’ll do it.”
After a several month back-andforth duel of words and numbers between Stan Mayfield and City Attorney Charles Vitunac over the meaning of the word “customers” in the legislation, Mayfield called the city’s tinkering with the numbers “a sad state of affairs” and vowed to the city that the issue “is not going away.”
When Rep. Debbie Mayfi eld took offi ce in November 2008 following her husband’s passing, she put the city on notice that the issue was not dead.
“I was going to introduce legislation that fi rst session (2009), but the city asked me to not to do it to give them time to work on it,” Mayfield said. “I told them I would give them time to work on it but that I would suggest they get together with the constituents and especially the county residents to see if you can resolve the issues.”
“When I saw that there was nothing being done, and that there was no progress, I tried to bring something up mid-session last year but it didn’t have the support of the delegation,” she said.
The challenge to the city posed by Mayfield was to voluntarily establish a meaningful, independent Utility Authority.
“But they didn’t want to do that, they wanted to have total control,” she said.
As weeks and then months ticked away, Mayfield said she saw and heard about the real human suffering caused by exorbitant electric bills. She knows all about the undue burden being placed on families, retirees and business owners. The city maintains its position that they’re “working on it,” but Mayfield’s patience with the city’s inaction has come to an end.
“I told him, ‘Jim (Gabbard), you go do whatever you need to do because we don’t know what’s going to happen with the legislation,’” she said. “The purpose of this is to protect the city residents and the county residents and to give more transparency.”
Despite opposition from the City of Vero Beach, momentum is building for Mayfield’s legislation. On Dec. 1, The Indian River Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution in support of bringing the city utility under PSC regulation.
On Jan. 26, the local legislative delegation will meet with City of Vero Beach offi cials to discuss the proposed local bill to regulate the electric utility. This meeting was originally scheduled for Dec. 4 and has been rescheduled a couple of times. The meeting will be held at 9 a.m. in the council chambers at City Hall and is open to the public.
Mayfield hopes to have enough public support and enough petitions in hand to convince her fellow legislators to help her launch the bill. It will be submitted to the leadership of the Florida House and Senate, sent out to committees to be fleshed out and then, if successful, it will go to the floor for a vote. It would place the City of Vero Beach Electric Utility under full PSC regulation as of the date the bill is signed into law.
Though her intent is not to drive the city to sell out to FPL or any other utility, Mayfi eld has gone on record saying that being regulated by the PSC may cause the city to re-think the continued wisdom of staying in the electric business.
“If they’re going to continue to be in the electric utility business, you’ve got to be regulated by the people who do this, who regulate the utility business,” she said.
Mayfield said she suspects the origin of some of the venom spewed over her petition comes from both staffers and elected offi cials protecting bureaucratic territory. “Some of the things about this that I really struggle with is that it’s not our money that we’re spending. We forget that we need to do what’s best for the city and county taxpayers,” she said. “We should be doing things to make it better for the taxpayers and to make it have less government bureaucracy, and not spend so much time building little empires to have power over.”