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Vero finally getting serious about marina repairs

Photo: A collapsing pier in need of repairs at the Vero Beach Municipal Marina.

The City Council has finally gotten fed up with unsightly and unsafe conditions at the Vero Beach Municipal Marina that Vero Beach 32963 began reporting on more than a year ago.

In a lengthy and at times intense session with Harbormaster Tim Grabenbauer and City Manager Jim O'Connor during a budget workshop, councilmembers expressed frustration with the state of the marina – which provides a first impression of the city for thousands of visitors every year – and said repairs can’t be put off any longer.

"We've been putting Band-Aids on all this," councilmember Lange Sykes said. "Repairs need to be made. We have an opportunity here to make the marina a jewel of the community. Something's got to give."

"We agree to have the marina as a focal point in the coming fiscal year," said Mayor Laura Moss.

Longstanding complaints from boaters and live-aboard residents have focused on both cosmetic and safety issues. The aging piers are of particular concern.  Some have slippery surfaces, rotting wood and cracked concrete with rusting rebar exposed.

In April, a woman who lives aboard her boat at the marina and her dog were dumped into the lagoon when the concrete “finger pier” on which they were standing suddenly collapsed. The woman suffered bruises on her arm in the fall, but was able to make it out of the water and onto the dock. The dog was also rescued. 

A marina resident who did not want to be identified said other boaters and at least one marina employee have fallen from the slippery, crumbling docks.

Another source related an incident in which a resident boat owner slipped on her dock, and tumbled into the water next to her boat. With no ladder on her stretch of dock, she couldn't pull herself out. Fortunately, neighbors nearby dragged her to the main dock and hauled her to safety, but not before she sustained a nasty gash on her arm.

“The only docks I've seen in Florida in worse shape are in Tarpon Springs,” a marina resident said at the time.

Piles of junk that persist for months, broken equipment and damaged bathrooms have been pointed out by marina visitors and residents alike. Last year, Grabenbauer said plans to replace the north restrooms in 2007 had been put on hold when the economy tanked, leaving gaping holes in bathroom walls.

Shower stalls, partitions and fixtures were purchased in 2016, but Grabenbauer said they were not delivered until the winter season when the marina was at its busiest.  Not wanting to close half the available restrooms at that time, he decided to wait until after season to do the renovation.

That was last year, however, and the bathrooms still have not been repaired, a delay that was upsetting to Sykes. "We're coming into season – again,” he said. “I don't know why it's taken so long.”

Grabenbauer promised to send out RFPs for the bathroom renovation right away.

Sykes also reported that he's often had to wait for service at the marina when fueling his boat. "It's happened to me a lot," he said, noting that he has observed employees in the office hanging out, "having lunch together,” instead of fueling boats.

Residents and visitors have voiced this same concern about inattentive or inactive employees to Vero Beach 32963 for more than a year. Grabenbauer said there are cameras at the fuel dock so employees can see when a boat pulls up, even if they are sitting inside, but it was suggested to him that employees should be more visible and available outside the office – to "bump up the service."

"I'll talk to the staffers as soon as I get back,” Grabenbauer said.

The Council acknowledged the marina's maintenance woes stem in large part from a huge debt-service burden that eats up much of its cash flow and limits Grabenbauer’s ability to do more than patchwork repairs in response to incidents such as the collapse of the finger pier – which is still unrepaired.

As a city enterprise fund, the marina is expected to operate on its own income, but in 2007 Grabenbauer borrowed $4.7 million to buy a dry storage structure, with related equipment and floating docks, on a 1.19-acre parcel south of the Vero Beach Yacht Club. O’Connor believes the move was a wise one, on balance, looking toward future needs, but servicing the debt sucks a whopping $339,000 out of the marina budget annually – a burden the enterprise fund will be carrying for another 11 years.

Council member Dick Winger believes the city should somehow take the debt burden "off Grabenbauer’s back," although he's pretty sure that's not going to happen. He said that the marina has a reasonable income, but the heavy debt service pretty much cancels it out.

Grabenbauer’s fiscal 2017 budget includes fee hikes for dock, anchorage and transient rentals to raise more income, and he'll continue to apply for Florida Inland Navigation District and other available grant funding.

In addition, the city has budgeted $75,000 for center dock replacement and $25,000 for restroom renovation as part of three-year $185,000 capital improvement plan for the marina. The last major dock renovations were 30 years ago.

Planning Director Monty Falls and Vero Beach Marine Commission Chairman Tom Juliano have pledged to work with Grabenbauer to get the repairs underway as quickly as possible.

The workshop session included some back-and-forth about the possibility of privatizing the marina operation as a last resort, but for now, the consensus is to keep it a city operation.

"We know where we want to go,” Moss said. “Vero Beach is a first-class city, and we have a real opportunity here. I think we can still turn it around."