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Vero electric boss Tom Richards gives up, going back to retirement

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of April 16, 2015)

Three years after he was brought in to preside over the decommissioning of Vero’s Big Blue power plant and sale of the electric utility to Florida Power and Light, Vero Electric Utility Director Tom Richards has given up on the hope of this happening anytime soon and is going back into retirement.

“We’re going to be in the electric business for a long time,” Richards said in an interview, referring to Vero’s inability to extricate itself from its long-term contracts with the Florida Municipal Power Agency and the Orlando Utilities Commission.

“When I came in July of 2012, it seemed to me that the negotiations with the sale of the utility were pretty far along. I thought this thing would be sold in a year,” Richards said. “But by the end of 2013, I finally came to the conclusion that we were never going to be sold to FPL.”

Now Richards, who turns 70 in June, is just as tired of waiting for a sale to FPL as the rest of Vero’s 34,000 ratepayers. But unlike the ratepayers, Richard has an escape route. He submitted his letter of resignation last Wednesday, leaving behind a cadre of dispirited yet dedicated employees and a sprawling, aging electric system.

Sale or no sale, Vero has been firing up its nearly 60-year-old Big Blue power plant less and less frequently. “We run so seldom now,” Richards said. Generating Unit 3 is already permanently offline and the retirement of Unit 4 is set to coincide with Richard’s own departure at the end of May.

After that, Vero will have its combined cycle Unit 2 and Unit 5, plus the original General Electric steam generator, Unit 1 which Richards calls “the tea kettle,” operational, and those will only be activated if absolutely necessary.

Under Vero’s current contract with the OUC, folks in Orlando make all the decisions about when to operate the plant to support the grid or to relieve congestion on the transmission lines, and when to purchase power elsewhere.

“Lots of times they can buy power a little bit here and there and send it to us,” Richards said, to meet Vero electric’s winter peaks, which go up to 165 megawatt hours. The summer peak load is about 145 megawatts, with the temperate nights of spring and fall only pulling 45 to 50 megawatts.

Big Blue’s staff has dwindled from 28 to 23 through attrition and by cutting available hours from a ‘round-the-clock schedule seven days a week to 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays only. Most of those workers will be laid off if and when the City Council moves forward with plans to mothball the plant.

Handing out pink slips to men and women who have worked for Vero for decades and who are unlikely to find jobs matching the generous salaries and benefits offered by the city for these skilled positions is not how Richards wanted to end his distinguished career in the municipal power business.

Before coming to Vero, Richards had been utility director in Fort Pierce where he presided over the decommissioning of the Fort Pierce Utility Authority power plant in 2012.  At least there, he was able to immediately move the vast majority of his employees over to comparable positions at the newly built FMPA Treasure Coast Plant.

Richards had likewise expected most or all the Vero power plant workers to have job opportunities with FPL, as FPL had promised to keep workers on board for at least two years after the closing, and then to offer them first dibs on open positions within NextEra Energy’s global electric utility network.

“When I got here, under the terms of the FPL deal, they were promised a job,” Richards said. “There were a number of meetings with FPL. They came out here and assessed the plant and there was a lot of activity. There was opposition at first to the sale, but as things dragged on and dragged on, the (employees) became resigned to it.

“You take the hand you’re dealt and you embrace that hand,” Richards said. “The employees thought they may have to move, but they had something to look forward to.”

Then, he said, the sale got bogged down and that hope began to fade.

Morale in the electric utility has suffered greatly as employees have been put through the emotional wringer of not knowing, week to week, or month to month, what was in store for them, for their families and for their department.

“There are some really good people here. The plant has a very dedicated, hard-working staff who has been here a long time and spent blood, sweat and tears keeping this place running,” Richards said.

Anyone who has driven a very old car or lived in a very old house can imagine what it’s like dealing with the daily challenges of maintaining a vintage power plant with systems so old that they no longer make the parts to fix it.

“They don’t get discouraged by that,” Richards said. “They like to keep busy.”

In the worst of times in 2009 when rates skyrocketed to 58 percent higher than FPL, Vero electric workers told Vero Beach 32963 that they felt like pariahs, ashamed even to wear their city uniforms in public if they had to run an errand after their shift.

Now, those folks are more like the walking dead – disheartened but still showing up for work every day to patch Big Blue together whenever she busts a gasket or breaks down – waiting to get word that the doors are closing for good.

With each twist in the years-long saga of Vero electric, with each new batch of well-intentioned City Council members pushing this policy or that, with each new consultant recommending actions to cut costs, the employees have learned to roll with the shifting tide.

Several long-time managers like Power Resources Director Jim Stevens and Transmission and Distribution Director Randall McCamish cashed in their retirement booty and moved on, while others like Richards and McCamish’s deputy, Ted Fletcher, filled their shoes. Fletcher, who is the nephew of former mayor Craig Fletcher, has 30 years of service with Vero electric and, Richards said, has a great deal of institutional knowledge of the system.

Now City Manager Jim O’Connor must find someone to tend the Big Blue dinosaur in her final days and to keep the juice flowing out to the far reaches of Vero’s system from The Moorings to John’s Island to Indian River Medical Center to the Indian River Mall.

“Tom has done an outstanding job for us. It was fortunate for me when he agreed to take the position,” O’Connor said.

Having his pension from Fort Pierce in hand, Richards agreed to a compensation package that did not include retirement benefits, so Vero ratepayers are not on the hook for any golden parachute.

“He agreed to one year and I got three out of him,” O’Connor said.  “Now I’ll be looking for someone with the same skills; fortunately with Tom I was able to find someone with knowledge of both the FMPA and the OUC,” O’Connor said. An advertisement is set to go up this week for the position.

Acknowledging that the job would most likely attract a career professional from northern climes looking to pave the way to a Florida retirement, O’Connor said, “I’m not sure we’ll get that lucky this time around.”

Whoever is hired by O’Connor to replace Richards will have some daunting obstacles ahead.

“We postponed a lot of maintenance, and we’re still kind of in that position, as we’re definitely on the path to closing the plant,” Richards said.

On the heels of a prolonged recession, when Vero is under mounting pressure by Indian River County and Indian River Shores to shave substantial dollars off the rates, the new person in charge will need to beg the City Council for money to fix some things – and in the utility business, repairs aren’t cheap, often running into six figures and beyond.

Over the past few years when turning over the keys to FPL seemed imminent, the city has put off some big capital expenditures – one of those being the replacement of the five transformers at the barrier island’s three substations. That work could no longer be postponed, Richards said.

“The five transformers on the beach are rusted out and two were out of service,” he said. “We’re out there working on them right now.” Replacement of the three remaining beachside transformers is expected to follow, hopefully prior to this summer’s storm season.

Richards said he plans to stay in Vero, where he owns a home with his wife, who works for the Indian River County School District. He’s looking forward to a long-anticipated trip to India with his wife and a group of travelers, and to maybe developing a hobby or two, or dusting off the set of golf clubs he owns but has barely used.

“It’s time for me to step down. I don’t want to be working full-time,” he said. “Looking around at some of my friends, some of them are not doing so well and some have passed away. I want to be able to enjoy my family.”