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Shores picks up influential backing in electric battle

Photo: Senator Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

In the absence of any real help from legislators representing Indian River County, Florida Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater wrote a forceful letter Monday morning supporting the Town of Indian River Shores on the eve of its big day before the Florida Public Service Commission.

Latvala, an influential senior senator who holds key positions on several major committees, including general government oversight, regulated industries and appropriations, weighed in on behalf of the Shores’ petition to open up Vero’s electric service territory.

While it seemed unlikely that the Public Service Commission would grant the Shores’ request for freedom from Vero electric, the fact that more heavy-hitter state lawmakers from outside the Vero Beach area are now weighing in on this matter suggests that the battle against Vero electric is gaining traction.

Along with Latvala’s letter, which was added to the docket records on Monday, dozens of Indian River Shores residents lodged their concerns in writing over the past two weeks, as urged to by town officials.

“I strongly encourage you to carefully consider your actions and listen closely to the pleas from the aggrieved citizens of Indian River Shores,” Latvala wrote in the two-page letter to Chairman Julie Brown. “This is a unique situation that not only involves constitutional issues, but also issues of fundamental fairness.

“For far too long, the citizens of the Town have been given no voice and no form of representation before their electrical provider, the City of Vero Beach. With no way to redress their complaints at either the ballot box or through a representative utility authority, thousands of consumers in the Town have been subjected to excessive rates and poor quality service from an unresponsive provider,” Latvala wrote.

The Shores had petitioned the PSC to open up the territory on the grounds of “changed circumstances,” since Vero’s electric franchise with the Shores expires on Nov. 6 and the Town no longer wants 80 percent of its residents in the area south of Old Winter Beach Road to be served by Vero. The northern 20 percent are already on Florida Power & Light, paying rates more than 30 percent lower.

“When your predecessors approved the territorial boundary line that now divides the Town, I’m sure that they never envisioned that the City of Vero Beach electric utility would systematically disenfranchise its non-resident customers in the Town. But that is what has happened and that is unacceptable,” Latvala said.

“It was never the intent of the Legislature that Florida’s consumers be subject to the whims of an unregulated utility provider acting as a monopoly and lacking accountability to its customers,” he added.

“As commissioners of the Public Service Commission, it is your responsibility to consider the rights of the public and take the necessary actions to provide solutions and protect the best interests of our citizens. I know none of you take that responsibility lightly. If the law gives the Public Service Commission the authority to establish monopoly service areas, surely that carries with it the authority to protect disenfranchised customers where the utility is abusing its monopoly status,” he continued.

PSC Chair Brown had delayed hearing the matter, telling the parties that she hoped they could work out an amicable solution outside the PSC process.

But on Aug. 16, the Vero Beach City Council rejected a $30 million offer from FPL to purchase the Shores customers – a sum more than double the previous $13.6 million cash that was on the table. Now, with that deal failed, the Shores went back to the PSC seeking a redress of grievances that it had not been able to get from the circuit court or from protracted mediation with Vero officials.

“I am confident that the Public Service Commission will make the right decision in this matter and amend the territorial boundaries as requested in order to end the abusive practices that have befallen the citizens of the Town of Indian River Shores,” Latvala concluded, in the letter co-signed by state House Rep. Debbie Mayfield, who won her Republican primary bid on Aug. 30 to move up to the Senate.