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Vero Beach looking for firm to take over city marina

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER

The City of Vero Beach is fishing for competitive proposals to take over the city marina.

Two months ago, City Manager Jim O’Connor reached out to a national marina management firm to get some input about the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s current marina operations. The good news is that the marina is well-liked and well-used. The bad news is that the city has dragged its feet on needed maintenance and repairs, partially out of budget constraints and partially out of indecision among council members.

O’Connor said that in his opinion, farming out the management of the marina would only add an extra layer of costs for few benefits, and that the city would likely still get stuck with major capital improvements. A lease, he said could be a better option.

He found six firms, some of them out of state, that could lease and operate the marina. The next step is to go to those firms and ask for them for a letter of interest. “I would like them to come down and visit the marina so they know what we have and the conditions that we’re looking at,” O’Connor said.

“It could turn out that nobody has any interest and that’s the end of that,” said City Council member Val Zudans, adding that the entire process needs to be transparent so the public can see all proposals that come in.

 O’Connor said there are different types of leases and that the city could tailor an agreement to meet its needs. “We could almost be as creative as we want to be in the way we want to go,” he said.

The marina is an enterprise fund, meaning that it’s operated on user fees and it’s not supposed to be a drain on taxpayers. Some years it does break even, but frequently the city has to kick in money from the general fund to cover some marina expenses. In turn, the marina fund transfers $102,000 per year back to the general fund to offset administrative expenses provided by the city such as management and legal staff, human resources and purchasing.

In a letter read in his absence, Councilman Tony Young said he advocates the city preserving revenue sources and looking at obtaining other forms of revenue to meet commitments such as the growing cost of healthcare for city employees. Divesting the city of its enterprise funds, the marina among them, Young said, is not the way to accomplish this.

The Indian River Neighborhood Association rallied residents to speak from the podium against the idea of Vero getting rid of its enterprise funds, but Zudans said that the majority of Vero residents think the city may not be the most efficient operator of various services, including the marina.

Zudans wants Vero to take a hard look at outsourcing its water-sewer utility and trash services as well.

That approach has drawn fire from people like former councilman Brian Heady and others who cry foul, saying the actions Zudans advocates are akin to dismantling or liquidating city assets or even the city itself.

“I take offense at the idea that I’m trying to disincorporate the city,” Zudans said. He said he’s only trying to do what he sees as his job as a council member– to bring quality services to the residents at the lowest possible cost, and to look at all the options for doing so.

Council member Laura Moss said one of the reasons why the city is as beautiful as it is, is because the city maintains control over things like its marina.

“We need to give it more of a shot before we turn it over to somebody else,” said Debra Daige, claiming that the marina and its staff have been slighted in recent budget.

“If you go to an outsider, remember the economics,” said former council member Dick Winger. He pointed out that the marina is bogged down in debt from land purchases and building construction, plus the ongoing costs of repairs. “If you rent the thing, some way or another you’ve got to cover the $320,000 payment on the loan . . . if you go to an outsider you’ve got to consider all those sums.”

Winger said the city also needs to take a comprehensive look at the marina’s rates, and to make sure that it doesn’t fall even deeper into disrepair.

Vice Mayor Lange Sykes said he’s frustrated by the lack of progress on repairs and capital improvements at the marina, despite the money being committed for these projects.

He gave an example of a wall that sits there half painted for several weeks. “It’s little things like that that are frustrating to me,” Sykes said. “As a city, let’s put together a plan to figure out the most fiscally responsible way that we can operate the best marina that we can.”