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County hopes to strike water, sewer deal with the city

STORY BY IAN M. LOVE - STAFF WRITER (Week of Nov. 11, 2010)

With an almost entirely new Vero Beach City Council in place, the Indian River County Commission is making its first priority the regionalization of water and sewer utilities.

“I would really like to lay the foundation for the regionalization of water and sewer,” said Commissioner Wesley Davis. “I’d like to get some relief for all the residents on their electric rates, and I’d like to see greater cooperation between the city and the county on things that are a benefit to both sides.”

The county has the capacity to handle the water and sewer needs of all of Indian River, but Vero Beach has been very reluctant to entertain the idea of getting out of the water and sewer business.  There were preliminary discussions between the city and county about regionalization earlier this year that went nowhere. 

“The one thing I think I will be spending the most time on over the next two years is water in all its forms,” Commissioner Bob Solari said.

“We have a great water-sewer-reuse utility which we are in a position now to offer. With the changes in the council, I believe we are ready to begin an open and transparent process of discussing the possibility of regionalization. I don’t care where it ends up, but it is very important for everybody to begin a dialogue.”

The new City Council members have signaled a willingness to put all options regarding utilities back on the table. In fact, Commissioner Peter O’Bryan is hopeful regionalization of water and sewer will come to fruition in the near term.

“I had asked each of the City Council candidates if at a policy level above staff, they would be willing to sit down with the county and discuss the regional water and wastewater system.  Each one of the candidates that got elected gave a very enthusiastic yes,” O’Bryan said. “So I think there is a very good opportunity to sit down and make a policy level decision and say this is what we want to do, we want a regional system and then staff will have direction to implement that policy decision.”

Other areas where the city and the county might explore consolidation is of the two building departments, two recreation departments, and the sheriff’s office and city police department.

“There has been talk of looking at law enforcement,” O’Bryan said. “I think right now the prudent course is for the city and the county to look at the water and electric issues and get those resolved. At some point the council can say our constituents want us to look further or they are happy with what we have done.”

Aside from warming relations with Vero Beach, the commissioners said their top priority for the county is jobs. Unemployment in Indian River County is at a staggering 15.4 percent, fourth-highest in the state. The commissioners have been working with the Chamber of Commerce to make the county more business friendly and have begun to see some results from their effort.

INEOS New Planet BioEnergy Joint Venture has just started construction of a $100 million project at the old Ocean Spray facility on Oslo Road to build the first fuel ethanol plant in Florida. When fully operational in 2012 it is expected to generate 50 full-time jobs.

The commissioners pointed to passage of the business tax abatement referendum on Nov. 2 as another move that should help them entice companies to come to Indian River County.

“I think it goes without saying that the top priority has to be to find some clean industry that pays a decent wage,” said Commissioner Gary Wheeler. “We’ve done some things with the Enterprise Zone, there is the availability of some state funds that gives us some latitude and flexibility to try and lure some good clean industry that will bring some jobs here.”

The County also adjusted its jobs credit program and it has attracted interest both locally and from outside companies. Among the companies applying for the credit have been SpectorSoft Corp., OcuCue, eMindful and NetBoss Technologies.

“In the couple years before the commission revised the jobs credit program, we had one company in three years even apply for it,” said Solari. “And in the year since we passed the revised program we have had five applications. In the past couple years the commission has made significant efforts to become more business friendly. We are a very low tax community, with a very good infrastructure and with our other benefits it will make us over time a great place to do business.”

Commissioner O’Bryan has taken much of the lead in trying to attract business to come to Indian River County. He has a pet project he wants to develop over the next two years that meets the commission’s desire for job-producing clean technology.

“One of the things I’d like to see accomplished is some type of renewable energy financing district,” he said. “These typically go under the acronym PACE for Property Assessed Clean Energy program.”

How it works is a pool of money is made available and is loaned to homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient. The loan then becomes an assessment on their tax bill, guaranteeing repayment but spreading payments over a number of years providing immediate savings for the homeowner.

“There are two results.  One is the energy savings people will get and the savings on their electric bills, and two is the jobs created by it, because initially you will have installation jobs for roofers and contractors and plumbers and electricians,” O’Bryan said. “And if we get enough momentum going, you may get a manufacturer to set up here because of the availability of a tax break.”