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BEACHSIDE NEWS OCTOBER 2018

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No decision likely on Vero electric before New Year

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER | NEWS ANALYSIS

The anticipated Oct. 1 closing date for the Vero electric utility whizzed by, but instead of opening their first Florida Power & Light bills last week, Vero Beach, Indian River Shores and Indian River County officials once again found themselves pleading for mercy from high rates before an unelected five-member panel of utility regulators 350 miles away in Tallahassee.

All the arguments on both sides were tired ones at last week’s meeting, like a broken vinyl record, the needle stuck in one spot for nearly a decade. The parties have grown visibly weary of waging these battles.

Reinforcements have been brought in, fresh blood on the Vero City Council, or new legal minds, but the core cast of characters is the same as when Florida Power & Light was first invited to the negotiating table in 2009.

Utility activist Glenn Heran and state Sen. Debbie Mayfield testified about the rate disparity and how it hurts the community as a whole. Rep. Erin Grall addressed some of the political double-dealing that has played a part in keeping this historic sale of a municipal electric utility gummed up in the legal and regulatory morass.

The battle cry remains the same, to get Vero out of the electric utility business for good, and to save the greater community a whopping $20 million per year paid in extra electric costs compared to what consumers would pay FPL for the same power. At the same time, the opposition still says the city rushed into the deal, despite the fact that FPL’s first letter of intent arrived on the steps of city hall in April 2011.

In an attempt to bring to light this allegedly shady, backroom deal, attorney Lynne Larkin – who had long-since been voted off the Vero Beach City Council when Jim O’Connor became city manager in July 2011 – asked him how many times since he took the position the electric sale had been discussed during public meetings.

A beleaguered O’Connor answered truthfully, “Virtually every one. It’s been the No. 1 topic.”

Everything would have to proceed perfectly – flawlessly might be a better word – for Vero Beach to close on the sale of its electric utility by Dec. 31, as outlined in the formal sale contract. Up to now nothing has been remotely flawless about this process, so the Vero Beach City Council has given itself three more months to make the $185 million deal happen.

The next step is the filing of briefs by attorneys; those are due noon Oct. 29. Then the PSC staff has to issue its recommendation, which is due Nov. 15.

Based upon the totality of the evidence in the case, plus the staff’s take on matters, the PSC is scheduled to vote on the matter at its special commission conference on Nov. 27.

Last time around, the PSC staff recommendation took an extra week or so and if there is a delay, the PSC has another commission conference scheduled for Dec. 3 to clear its slate before the Christmas holidays.

PSC Commissioner Julie Brown pointed out the dear price of the appeal by Larkin’s Civic Association of Indian River County, saying that Vero ratepayers paid an additional $8 million on their electric bills over FPL rates between the June and October hearings.

After the vote – on Nov. 27 or Dec. 3 –  a formal, final agency action will eventually be published. Should Larkin not like the decision, she’ll have to muster the resources to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

If that happens, Vero’s nearly 34,000 ratepayers could be looking at even more delays, and high winter heating bills once again in early 2019.