The fate of Vero electric issues now rests with courts
The Florida Legislature has again failed to act to protect consumers against the unregulated price monopolies that are Florida’s municipal electric utilities and the statewide electric co-op, leaving the task to local and state courts to decide.
With less than two weeks remaining in the 2016 regular legislative session, a bill introduced by Rep. Debbie Mayfield to regulate the Florida Municipal Power Agency has been derailed by the electric industry’s lobbying juggernaut. This leaves a pending ruling of the Florida Supreme Court and an ongoing Circuit Court breach of contract case on the table as possible sources of relief for ratepayers, as well as a hearing before the Florida Public Service Commission.
Based upon a published PSC staff recommendation, that avenue did not appear particularly promising and any ruling that came out of Tuesday’s hearing seemed unlikely to resolve disagreements Indian River Shores and the County are having with Vero Beach regarding what will happen when their 30-year franchise agreements end in November and next March, respectively.
The Shores and the County both believe they should be able to switch to Florida Power & Light electric service when the 30-year agreements end, to take advantage of rates that are approximately 30 percent lower than Vero Electric’s.
But Vero is determined to keep them as cash cow customers whose utility payments help support the city’s general fund. So far, no authority – not the PSC, not the courts, not the legislature – has given any useful guidance about whether the Shores and the County can break free from Vero’s monopoly, or even which authority has the power to make the decision.
Mayfield’s House Bill 579 and its companion Senate Bill 840 would have required increased fiscal accountability and forced the FMPA to give member cities a fair-market value of their proportional assets and liabilities – a move seen as a step toward devising an equitable exit price for cities like Vero Beach that want to get out of the co-op’s perennial commitments.
County Attorney Dylan Reingold briefed the Board of County Commissioners on the development, saying, “Although we were successful in getting SB 840 out of its first committee yesterday we were unable to get the bill re-referred and we were unable to make the agenda for Monday's Senate General Government Appropriations committee meeting. Thus, the legislation is unfortunately dead.”
The county hired a lobbying firm two years ago, first resulting in a $100,000 appropriation to pay for a full operational audit of the FMPA, and setting off a probe of those audit findings by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, of which Mayfield is a member. The JLAC committee required follow-up reports from FMPA officials and several JLAC members helped get the proposed bills through three committees before the legislation died.
County officials and utility activists are hopeful that the will to make the FMPA more accountable may re-surface next legislative session.
“I am disappointed, but it was the first time that a bill concerning the FMPA was able to get out of committee. As you know we were able to actually get out of three committees. Such progress combined with the support from new allies in Senator Simpson and Green Cove Springs shows that the issue has momentum,” Reingold told commissioners.
Green Cove Springs, like Vero, has also been actively trying to exit the FMPA for several years but has been unable to do so.