South Beach residents may get same water-sewer rates as Shores
The City of Vero Beach and Indian River County are working on a deal to give South Beach county residents lower water and sewer rates – the same rates residents of Indian River Shores will start getting October 1 – while keeping them part of the city utility system.
The agreement in the works would award a continued franchise to Vero Beach to serve the island south of Castaway Cove beyond the scheduled March 2017 expiration of the South Beach franchise agreement, but would give those customers the much lower rates the county charges those on its system.
That is the deal the City of Vero Beach agreed to in order to keep the Town of Indian River Shores from switching water and sewer service providers.
While there seems to be little prospect of South Beach rates being cut at the same time as the new rates kick in for Indian River Shores, County Attorney Alan Polackwich said his aim was to get some rate relief for residents at the southern end of 32963 sooner rather than later.
“If the idea comes to fruition, my hope (although the issue has not yet been discussed) is that the new system would be implemented prior to 2017,” Polackwich said in an e-mail.
Vero City Attorney Wayne Coment let news of the negotiations slip last week during a Vero budget workshop. Coment told the council members that he had given Polackwich a copy of the Indian River Shores franchise agreement that will take effect on Oct. 1, and said Polackwich was looking at “tweaking it” to find a similar solution that would work for South Beach.
Polackwich confirmed that, and that city and county staffers had met twice about how to join forces.
“We’re exploring several options with the city, one of which is continued city service at county rates. That would give south barrier island residents the opportunity to complain to their elected commissioners, if they believe rates are too high,” Polackwich said in an e-mail.
Politically, the proposal has advantages and drawbacks. Even though South Beach ratepayers would still be getting their water and sewer service from the city and not the county, the county would effectively have control of their rates.
“If the idea progresses, we will probably schedule a meeting with south barrier island representatives to get their input,” Polackwich said.
But within the city proper where the customers can vote, Vero Beach City Council members might pay a dear price for approving such a deal if it left taxpayers inside the city limits paying more for water than residents of both Indian River Shores and South Beach.
Vero rates have been shown to be anywhere from 20 to 40 percent higher for customers who use both water and sewer service. Only customers who use huge amounts of water – 12,000 gallons per month or more – would likely be better off with Vero rates.
O’Connor bested the county for the
Shores contract earlier this year by matching the county offer of better rates, and sweetening the deal with lower reuse water rates. He even tossed in some money to compensate the Shores for using town utility assets.
To top it off, Shores customers got to ditch Vero rates and the 10 percent surcharge on their bills four years early. Mayor Tom Cadden and the town council snatched up that deal.
When Vero was chosen over Indian River County to serve the Shores for another 30 years, any hopes for an early formation of a regional water-sewer utility were dashed.
The only battle ground remaining was over the South Beach customers, who make up about 20 percent of the Vero system.
Both the city and the county hired high-priced law firms that specialize in utilities and launched massive archaeological expeditions into files and deeds to find documents to back up the argument that their entity had rights to the pipes and pumps and water mains running up and down and through communities along A1A on the south barrier island.
The city’s lawyers and the county’s lawyers issued skillfully written, dueling opinions on the matter. Taxpayers, meanwhile, are facing the prospect of financing months or even years of motions and hearings – and maybe even a civil trial – if a compromise is not brokered in the next year or so.
O’Connor reached out to county officials earlier this year to see what Vero and the county could do to avoid a legal mess, get rates down and keep the Vero utility system intact. With a near complete changeover in top Vero staff over the past two years, the two governments finally seem to be beginning to learn how to work together for the public good.