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Vero Council taking hard look at pricey consultants

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of June 23, 2011)

After spending $50,000 in one month on electric consultants and waiting for the mounting bills to arrive for water-sewer projects, the Vero Beach City Council is doing a gut-check about how much “expert” advice it needs and how much to spend for it.

The pressing concerns for Vero are whether and how to divest itself of its electric, water and sewer utilities. Passions and rhetoric have been running increasingly hot on both sides of the issue.

Urged by those resistant to change to pay as much as necessary for “due diligence,” and prodded by those anxious to get Vero out of the utility business to forge ahead, the Vero City Council is relying on GAI Consultants to provide appraisals and guidance about its electric, water and sewer systems.

This week, the Council was set to take the first hard look at what Vero Beach taxpayers are getting for the half-million dollars the city has decided to spend on GAI.

Vice Mayor Pilar Turner has two major concerns – the slow pace of invoices and progress reports, and the seemingly unwillingness of GAI and Vero city staff to set hard deadlines for progress. An engineer herself, Turner said she’s particularly troubled about not having benchmarks.

“I’ve been asking for a timeline for both electric and water-sewer and can’t seem to get them to do one,” Turner said. “I’ve never dealt with consultants who wouldn’t be accountable to a timeline.”

Councilwoman Tracy Carroll has expressed increasing skepticism about GAI’s influence on utility issues over the past few weeks, and last week, Councilman Brian Heady said he’s no longer convinced that Vero needs GAI’s services because he sees the firm as being a tool of the city staff.

Heady said he would be in favor of curbing the consultant’s duties and that he’s not inclined to vote for any more money for GAI.

Councilman Craig Fletcher has supported using GAI to collect all the data needed to make complex utility decisions.

In April, GAI was hired to appraise the electric system and figure out if a sale to Florida Power and Light is both possible and auspicious for Vero ratepayers and taxpayers.

That project had a price tag of $238,000 and was supposed to be put on a “fast track” of about 132 days. Then in May, GAI pitched and got a second set of contracts for $173,000 worth of water-sewer work.

Four key staffers at GAI are working on both projects, calling into question if and how their water-sewer work is slowing down the priority electric work.

For example, a status report that was due 45 days into the electric project was received nearly one month late. Invoices detailing work completed show up three to four weeks after the end billing date.

Mayor Jay Kramer defends GAI’s position doing double duty on both the electric and water-sewer fronts.

“They look to be doing their job very well,” Kramer said. “There is a time issue, they’re pressed for time. We gave them a deadline and I assume they’re going to meet their deadlines.”

Besides, Kramer said, the city didn’t have much of a field from which to choose. “There are only two in the state, two certified appraisers of utilities,” he said.

Kramer also said he would support approval of an additional $35,000 proposal from GAI that appeared on Tuesday’s council agenda. The new task would be to issue a request for qualifications to entities interested in purchasing the city’s rights to buy power from the Stanton 1 and 2 plants and the St. Lucie nuclear plant through the Florida Municipal Power Agency.

“Somebody has to engage them (potential bidders) and go out after them,” Kramer said.

The buyer has to be a municipal utility which would be acceptable to the FMPA board of directors, which would ultimately approve the sale. Other than Vero, 33 municipal electric utilities in Florida belong to the Florida Municipal Electric Association.

County Commission Chairman Bob Solari has been watching the utility issues both as an outsider to city government and as an insider to the city -- Solari and wife Jackie are long-time Central Beach residents who will be affected by the decisions.

Solari serves as liaison between the County Commission and Vero on water-sewer issues, so he’s requested and reviewed hundreds, maybe thousands of pages of utility documents and correspondence.

 What he said strikes him is how current city staff -- just as when he was on the Vero Beach City Council from 2005 to 2007 – devises ways to work around the elected leaders.

“The staff continues to go out in front of the City Council and make policy,” Solari said. “You don’t need a City Council because (Vero Water and Sewer Utility Director) Rob Bolton is the policy maker.”

“The real purpose of GAI is to give staff the information they need to keep their jobs,” Solari said. “Regionalization and the shrink-back plan would both mean the loss of about half the jobs in the Vero water-sewer department. The difference is that regionalization would eliminate the upper management while the shrink-back plan would get rid of the rank-and-file employees.”