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Which way will Shores come down on water and sewer?

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of February 16, 2012)

Indian River Shores now has everything it wants in the City of Vero Beach water-sewer deal – lower county rates starting Oct. 1 even on reuse water, great terms, retention of the town’s plumbing assets and no fire hydrant fees.

If the Shores stays with the city, chances of a regional utility or getting the sewer plant off the river greatly diminish. Vero Beach will have no motivation to come to the table with the Indian River County Utilities to form a countywide utility.

The sewer plant on the river will stay there indefinitely – at least for another dozen years, which could be, in fact, a lifetime to many older island residents.

The Vero Beach City Council also will be free to sell the city water system, including the Shores franchise contract, to an out-of-state or even a foreign company.

What’s in it for the Shores to accept Vero’s offer when the council meets Monday? Savings of close to $750,000 per year for the next four years, inclusive of reuse water. That’s great for the Shores and its residents.

City staffers threatened to sue the Shores over the ownership of utility assets in the town, when both the town and the county attorneys say the assets clearly revert back to the Shores in 2016.

“I would be concerned if I were Indian River Shores,” said county Administrator Joe Baird. “I don’t know why they would want to enter into another agreement with someone who wouldn’t live up to the existing agreement.”

Baird is not a neutral party in this scenario by any means, but he does have a valid point.

Since the city has provided no details of how and when it plans to convert from a system of billing by meter size and gallons used over to the county rate structure of the equivalent residential unit and tiered use charges, there’s valid reason for the Shores Town Council members to want the city to explain this before signing anything.

If Shores officials look at Vero Beach Utilities and Indian River County Utilities as they would companies they would want to do business with, the county’s books look very impressive.

The county comes to the table with a stronger portfolio with $60 million in cash, an AAA bond rating, very low debt and $105 million in capital projects paid for in cash over the past five years.

It’s also questionable how Vero Beach could suddenly eliminate surcharges and convert to the county rate system to keep the Shores in the fold, when rates have been so much higher for so long.

“If they can do this, get the rates down, get the reuse rates down from $1.97 to 67 cents, this just says to the Vero Beach customer that you’ve been paying too much for years for reuse,” said Baird. “What they’re saying is that they’ve been overcharging you all along.”