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South Beach gets to vote in November on new water provider

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

South barrier island residents will get a chance to vote in November to end at least one form of the “taxation without representation” by the City of Vero Beach that they’ve railed against for going on four years.

The phrase sounds like something out of an American history book, but it’s been the mantra of South Beach utility ratepayers who are tired of contributing to Vero’s general fund and want get their electric service from Florida Power and Light and their water and sewer service from Indian River County.

South Beach customers, like those in Indian River Shores, not only pay city rates for their water and sewer, but also a 10 percent surcharge on water and sewer bills. It’s been characterized as a tax on people who have no authority to vote the Vero Beach City Council out of office.

“That’s what the City of Vero Beach is doing to the South Barrier Island residents, and  indeed all the county residents that are on city utilities,” said County Commissioner Bob Solari. “Basically they’re taxing their residents and changing the money from the utility into the general fund to keep the taxes on the city residents, of which I’m one, relatively low.”

In a step toward ending that practice, county commissioners voted unanimously last week to add a one-precinct referendum to the general election ballot for South Beach voters only asking whether those residents want to be served with water and sewer utilities by the city or by Indian River County when a 30-year franchise agreement expires in March 2017.

City officials argue that Vero took on providing utility service to the South Beach at a time when Indian River County had no way to serve those residents, and that development flourished in the Moorings and other south island communities because those utilities were present.

City staffers have argued that the service territory is permanent – not a 30-year territory granted by the franchise agreement – and have vowed that Vero would serve those customers until ordered not to by a court.

Vero is claiming the law is on its side, because there’s a clause in a Florida statute that gives municipalities the right to serve utility customers within a five-mile radius of city limits. The law on the books reflects Florida’s history, as cities tended to grow earlier and faster, prior to the advent of the strong county governments residents see today.

Solari is betting that a clear vote of the ratepayers themselves would weigh more heavily than what is probably an outdated state statute.

“It’s to let us hear the voice of the people in such a way that we have a tool to take to our state representatives,” Solari said, adding that the county would have a shot at changing two statutes.

“Having this added to a November election would be nearly costless,” Solari said. “And yes, it does not cover every county customer because there are county customers out of that (precinct) 512 region, but it covers the vast majority of them. It gives us the easiest, cheapest way of going to the state, if the city wants to be unreasonable, then to go to the state”

Commissioners approved the referendum 5-0, concurring that a vote of the ratepayers in this type of matter is the way state officials would prefer to handle what could be a territorial dispute between Vero and the county.

County Attorney Alan Polackwich researched the issue and reported back to Solari that, though the data he found was not definitive, “There are 3,122 registered voters in precinct 512, which is made up of the barrier island unincorporated area, south of the city limits.  According to the tax rolls, there are 1,785 tax parcels in precinct 512.” 

The goal would be to have enough people vote in November so that a clear majority of the ratepayers would be seen as voicing an opinion on the issue.

“If we assume that there are two registered voters for each parcel, we reach the conclusion that approx 87 percent of the parcels are owned or occupied by registered voters (3,122 divided by 2 equals 1,561, divided by 1,785 equals 87.45 percent),” Polackwich wrote.

The exact wording of the referendum is yet to be worked out, but Solari said it will give residents a clear choice to vote for either the city or the county as their service provider.