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Vero Council can’t get water info from staff

(Week of May 26, 2011)

Members of the Vero Beach City Council say city staff members have refused to provide key information the council needs to decide whether the city should merge its water and sewer system with the county.

According to Vice Mayor Pilar Turner and Councilmember Tracy Carroll, the head of the city’s water and sewer utility, Rob Bolton, has not complied with repeated written and verbal requests to provide an estimate of the rate impact of losing two large blocks of utility customers.

“I have been asking for that information since the end of November,” Turner said. “So far, all I have been given is one excuse after another for why the information is not forthcoming.”

The town of Indian River Shores may withdraw from Vero Beach’s water and sewer system in 2016 and link to the county system.  In 2017, it is possible barrier island residents south of Castaway Cove who live in an unincorporated area of the county will follow suit.

Neither withdrawal is certain.

Both would be moot if the city and county systems merge beforehand.

But, if the city maintains its own water and sewer utility, the defections would deprive it of more than 40 percent of its customers and drive up rates for those still served by the system, according to independent analysis by Glenn Hearn, a CPA.

Carroll is frustrated by Bolton’s refusal to weigh in with his own official analysis and said she doesn’t buy his excuses.

“Rob Bolton has been telling us for six months that he is unable to provide the information we need because the computer system used for billing will not give him those numbers,” said Carroll.

“To me and any other businessperson, that is just unfathomable. If you have a computer system that has the information in it, you create a spreadsheet and modify it however necessary to get your data. It is that simple. I create spreadsheets like that all the time in my business.”

Turner has said she was told by city staff that they didn’t want to spend the time and resources to analyze the rate impact of the two areas leaving the system “unless it becomes a reality,” but she and Carroll insist the council needs that information now so it can be proactive instead of reactive in making decisions about the city’s utility future.

Turner and Carroll both said it is clear rates would go up if the two areas withdraw but they want the details.

“Obviously, the city is restricted geographically,” said Turner. “We have no potential for population growth and if you have an aging infrastructure and shrinking customer base, rates have to go up.”

“We know theoretically that the model can’t work,” said Carroll. “We can’t operate the city under the current financial status if the transfers occur, so what happens?

Turner said interim city manager Monte Falls is part of the problem. “The council has no direct control over the water and sewer manager. All we can do is ask him and the interim city manager to provide the information. So far, the interim city manager has been unwilling to force the issue and get us the facts we need.”

“Rob Bolton is in a position to try and protect the enterprise he has worked for very many years,” said Carroll. “He feels it is important for him to protect the employees in that department, and while I respect his concern for his employees we have to look at what is best for the whole city.”

“I believe the [failure to provide the information] reflects an unwillingness to face a difficult challenge,” said Turner.

Bolton’s office was contacted four times by Vero Beach 32963 to get his response to the council criticism, and his staff confirmed that he received all four messages, but he did not make himself available to answer questions or offer any comment for this story.

Falls was on vacation prior to press time and unavailable for comment.