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2016 may offer hope on Vero electric front


The City of Vero Beach started and ended 2015 mired in litigation with its neighbors in Indian River County and the Town of Indian River Shores, with little progress and only attorneys and consultants, as usual, benefitting.

But 2016 may hold some promise on the Vero electric front.

Shores Mayor Brian Barefoot says he’s realistically optimistic after a 30-minute meeting last week with Vero Beach Mayor Jay Kramer. The two met informally in a neutral location.

Barefoot said he and Kramer did not talk specifics, but discussed how the changes on the Vero Beach City Council (Councilman Harry Howle’s election and Kramer becoming mayor) might improve relations between the City and the Town going forward.

“There is a good mutual understanding of the issues,” Barefoot said. “Mayor Kramer understands our position, and we understand the city’s position.”

The Shores is staring down the expiration of a 30-year franchise agreement and Shores leaders have told Vero they’re not renewing. What happens in Nov. 2016 is still a toss-up, with a pending circuit court case, a Florida Supreme Court ruling on an appeal by the County still months away, and potentially another petition to the Florida Public Service Commission in the works.

Vero has recently exhausted its last shot at reducing rates in the near future by signing a revamped deal with Orlando Utilities, and last month, the city “powered down” Big Blue.

But Vero has no cash on hand to dismantle the plant, or to relocate a substation and other key equipment off the riverfront.

Theoretically, an influx of $15 million or even $20 million would go a long way toward decommissioning Big Blue and liberating the city’s precious waterfront – a desire that transcends the factions that have been fighting over whether Vero should stay in the electric business.

Whether people think that scenic parcel should be used as a park, turned into an event venue or a marina complex, or even sold or leased to make way for a tax-paying commercial venture, nothing of significance is really possible as long as Big Blue and its remnants remain on the site.

Short of going into debt, as Former Mayor (and still Councilman) Dick Winger has advocated, it seems the sale of the Shores customers could present the best opportunity Vero has to get that huge influx of cash it needs to take down Big Blue.

Eighty percent of Shores residents are currently served by Vero electric, with 20 percent in the north end of the Town north of Old Winter Beach Road served by Florida Power and Light. FPL has made Vero an offer of $13 million to purchase the roughly 3,000 customers in the part of the Town that’s in the Vero service territory.

But under Winger, Vero took a hard line on that proposed partial sale. Influenced by backers including a key player in the Indian River Neighborhood Association, Winger vowed not to cut a deal with the Shores unless the balance of Vero’s customers were made whole. How much to accomplish that?

Vero’s consultants came up with a price tag of $64 million, a ridiculous-sounding number considering the Shores represents about 8 percent of Vero’s customers, and Vero was poised to sell the entire system to FPL for $100 million cash plus other consideration of more than $70 million.

Sources close to the negotiations say that a number more like $30 million has been floated, unofficially, by some city officials. That would be a better place to start, from the Shores’ perspective.

“You can’t begin to work toward a solution to all of this if you can’t sit down around a table and talk about it,” Barefoot said last weekend.

One or more members of the Vero Council may be planning to place an item on the Jan. 5 agenda asking the council to take another look at FPL’s offer to purchase the Shores.

As of Monday, City Clerk Tammy Vock said she’s received nothing of this sort for the agenda packet, but the deadline is Dec. 30 to request an item be heard at the early January meeting.