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Struggle to terminate Vero's old electric contracts now takes to the road

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of March 14, 2013)
Photo of utility activist Glenn Heran and Councilwoman Pilar Turner.

Now that Vero voters have endorsed the City Council decision to get out of the electric business, the next step is to gain the assent of a group of utility operators from all over Florida who can still delay, and perhaps even block, conclusion of the sale to Florida Power & Light. The key lies in extrication of Vero Beach from agreements it has with the Florida Municipal Power Agency.

FMPA member cities must approve a side deal struck among Vero, FPL and the Orlando Utilities Commission to eventually transfer Vero’s ownership share in FMPA power assets to OUC after the closing.

The FMPA must also vote to let Vero off the hook on the bonds floated to purchase that generation capacity.

While the FMPA voting members may have the legal authority to bind the City of Vero Beach to the power cooperative indefinitely, Councilwoman Pilar Turner thinks she can give them the political will to let Vero proceed with the sale. Herself a member of the FMPA board, Turner wants a quick “yes” vote now from fellow FMPA cities.

“The clock is ticking,” she said. “Even after the referendum, we’re still looking at $10 million per year in higher rates for city residents and more than $20 million for the county as a whole.”

Turner acknowledges that there’s nothing forcing FMPA members to let Vero out of the power cooperative and its debt. If they vote only in the interest of keeping existing members locked into the FMPA, they will no doubt vote no. But to do so, Turner said, would not only be short sighted; it would be contrary to the self interest of the other member cities.

“I just want them to keep their options open,” Turner said. “There may come a day when their city wants to leave the FMPA and if they vote to allow Vero to leave, they at least preserve that option.”

Blocking Vero’s sale to FPL, in effect, blocks their own ability to exercise home rule for their city. Turner intends to appeal to the city councils and utility authority boards as a peer, as an elected representative who has worked for three years to make a deal with FPL happen, who has tried to fulfill the charge she was elected to accomplish.

Until the other cities say “yes,” Turner’s hands are tied, despite the fact that her constituents have voted repeatedly in favor of getting out of the electric business.

“If it helps to take this message to the cities and engage their support, somebody’s got to be looking out for the utility customers,” she said.

So last week, Turner and utility activist Glenn Heran sat down with a map of the state and plotted out all the municipal utilities. They reviewed the rate disparities of each city as compared to the lowest rates in Florida offered by FPL.

Some cities are better off than Vero customers who pay 38 percent higher rates – New Smyrna Beach utility customers, for example, pay only 13 percent higher rates than FPL.

The bulk of FMPA cities like Ft. Pierce, Key West, Jacksonville Beach and Homestead are in the same boat as Vero in the 30 to 40 percent higher than FPL range.

Several communities’ costs are far worse, with Bushnell paying 42 percent higher bills, Ft. Meade paying 46 percent higher bills, Gainesville paying 49 percent higher bills, Bartow paying 57 percent higher and Chattahoochee paying 58 percent higher electric bills than FPL customers for the same power.

Turner plans to travel at her own expense and speak at the city council meetings of the FMPA member cities, urging them to allow Vero to leave the FMPA. She will argue that council members’ accountability to their own ratepayers far outweighs any forced loyalty to the FMPA.

Heran noted that those city councils, once convinced, will need to direct their FMPA representatives to vote in favor of Vero’s sale. “The people sitting on those boards are municipal utility directors with a vested interest in keeping their electric utilities,” he said.

Turner hopes to attract the attention of the statewide media and of ratepayers in each city as she crisscrosses the state from the Panhandle to Key West. She hopes the FMPA will let Vero out sooner rather than later, if for no other reason than to prevent a statewide revolt of municipal utility customers from gaining traction.