Dragged reluctantly into collaborating on a study which could put Vero’s water and sewer utilities out of business and leave top staff out of a job, the city may have found a politically expedient loophole for ending consolidation talks.
Last week, the Indian River County Planning and Zoning Commission approved amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan – the county’s long-term plan, so to speak – calling for county residents currently hooked up to city water and sewer services to either be served by a new consolidated entity or just by the county as of 2017.
When Vero’s Water and Sewer Utility Director Rob Bolton discovered this, he alerted City Manager Jim Gabbard. The city manager, in a series of meetings with individual City Council members, gave them his views on what is being characterized as the county’s lack of good faith.
Earlier this month, the County Commission approved a recommendation arrived at jointly with the City and the town of Indian River Shores to hire consultants to study the various permutations of utility service to the three jurisdictions.
At the same time, the County’s own zoning board was moving forward with a policy to eliminate any city-run services from the picture. A tape recording of Councilman Ken Daige’s meeting with Gabbard and Bolton reveals that the city’s top managers view the county planning commission’s exclusion of all but two options in the comp plan – even as the County Commission is approving study of a broader set of options – as an inexcusable case of double-dealing.
“We’re getting some feedback from that side that it’s either a consolidation or a termination of the agreement in 2017,” Bolton told Daige. “There’s no room for cooperatives, there’s no partnerships.”
Gabbard then said, “There’s no status quo.”
Mike Hotchkiss, who heads up engineering and planning for the county’s utility, says the county is just facing reality.
“With our county customers on the city system facing 60 percent increases in the near future, we feel that doing nothing is not an option,” Hotchkiss said.
Bolton, who earns $110,000 annually for directing the city’s water and sewer systems, has staunchly defended the view that Vero needs to maintain an independent water and sewer system.
Bolton has raised concerns about the city being overwhelmed with wet-weather discharge, and contends the public health and safety considerations of having redundant city and county systems to keep the sewage running in the right direction -- away from customers’ homes -- are reason enough to keep the city’s aging system operational.
The city’s water and sewer systems employ 82 full-time workers whose futures would be up in the air if the county took over serving residents currently served by the city. Six employees are already expected to lose their jobs due to mid-year budget cuts in April, leaving Bolton leading a team of 75.
The county already has a customer service department, payment facilities and adequate engineering and administration to serve the additional customers. It has -- or is planning to build -- the capacity to accept wastewater and to provide drinking water and reuse water for irrigation to all the customers.
That means increased staffing requirements would be limited to meter reading and technical personnel to maintain the additional lines, pumps and lift stations.
Another joint meeting with all the elected officials from Vero, the county and Indian River Shores -- at the request of Vero Beach -- is expected to take place in the next few weeks. Should Vero leaders come away less than comforted from those talks that their utility is about to be stripped out from under them, Vero’s participation in the joint process might be on borrowed time.
“The city continues to play the game where they want to keep everybody, as Charlie Wilson says, held hostage, and clearly that game is over,” said Vero Councilman Brian Heady.
Meanwhile, Shores officials and customers were fully expecting to have at least the basic information required to move ahead toward a decision for the town -- whose franchise expires in 2016 -- by early summer. The prospects of that happening at this time seem dim at best, if the Shores is forced to rely on the joint process for answers.
“These people are just doing their job recommending to us a consultant,” said Shores Mayor Bill Kenyon. “Then we’ll decide whether we want to play the game or we get out of it.”
Meanwhile, Vero’s water and sewer system, which ended the 2008-09 fiscal year owing the city’s general fund $93,000, is again running in the red to the tune of $450,000. The overruns are partly due to the new and controversial $11 million deep-well injection plant and nearly $900,000 of capital improvement projects desperately needed this year, for which the city might have to borrow more money.
The county system, flush in operating cash, keeps looking like the fiscally safer option for customers wishing to have a well-managed operation providing water and sewer service.
While Gabbard and Bolton may have been taken by surprise by the major revisions to the county comp plan, they weren’t the only ones. Commissioner Wesley Davis was not informed nor consulted, and found out via a call from Vero Beach 32963 asking for a comment on the city’s reaction.
“I honestly did not know about that, about those changes to the water and sewer portions,” Davis said, adding that he was aware amendments were being offered, as he had personally worked on some changes to land development regulations with the Agriculture Advisory Committee.
“I can very much understand why the city would be upset at that,” Davis said. “But my position has not changed from what we all agreed upon in October.”
All along, Davis said he wanted to look at all the options, but that the customers -- not the employees or the various territories that the city or county would want to gain or protect -- would be the number one priority in any decision he made about how to ultimately solve the problem.
“I’ve said that if we go through all of this and find out that the way we’re doing it now is the best way to go, I’ll bow out and we’ll leave it that way,” he said. “But if there’s a better, cheaper way to provide service to the county customers, especially those in the south beaches, we need to know.”
The county policy changes are slated to come before the Board of County Commissioners in a workshop with the Planning and Zoning Commission in mid-April. Davis said he would be willing to push for all four options -- consolidation, termination, collaboration and status quo -- to be included in the comp plan.
While the city accuses the county of having a hidden plan, top city staffers including retiring Finance Director Steve Maillet have floated their own trial balloon -- the idea that the city taxpayers would be “better off” if Vero retreated into the city limits and focused its efforts on providing service only to city customers.
This plan, however, has no research or financial analysis behind it. Should Indian River Shores and the county pull their customers out in 2016 and 2017 respectively, the burden of financing the city’s water and sewer infrastructure would be borne by just the remaining 60 percent of current customers.
Commissioner Bob Solari has publicly stated that this scenario would cause the city to have “no business model” to function going forward. It would also leave no way – except for borrowing huge sums -- to fund the planned move of the city’s wastewater treatment plant from its location southwest of the 17th Street Causeway to the airport.
This single project, according to the city and county’s estimates, could cost as much as consolidating the area’s water and sewer systems.