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Shores and Vero at impasse in utility dispute, but more talks may yet lead to a resolution

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of November 25, 2021)

The Town of Indian River Shores and the City of Vero Beach are at a stalemate in efforts to resolve an antitrust lawsuit outside of court. But while the next step is formal mediation, Vero Mayor Robbie Brackett opened the door just a crack to a potential solution.

“I want a resolution to this,” Brackett said. “We have other things we’re trying to do.”

While the two mayors agreed at the end of the meeting to continue the conversation, Shores Mayor Brian Foley guided the two elected boards present at the joint Vero City Council and Shores Town Council meeting swiftly to declaring an impasse so the case can move forward through the state-mandated conflict resolution process.

The matters still in dispute, Foley said, must be decided by “a guy wearing a robe who sits in Fort Pierce,” referring to the federal bench.

Foley said Vero’s threat of litigation against Indian River County for helping the Shores study the feasibility of the town joining the county water-sewer system had prevented the Shores and the county from having a full-blown discussion about options.

The city’s claim to have never-ending territorial rights outside the city limits – and that the Shores cannot exit Vero’s utility system – had infringed on the Shores’ ability to get competitive rates for water, sewer and reuse irrigation water service, Foley said.  “Forever is a very long time,” he added.

“We have a clock ticking on us, we need to make a decision,” Foley said, referring to the October 2023 deadline the Shores has to notify Vero whether it intends to not renew its franchise agreement which ends in 2027 to get water and sewer service from the city.

But Brackett said he still thinks the dispute can be ironed out.

Though the Vero Beach City Council as an elected body remains entrenched in its position that Indian River Shores is part of a permanent water-sewer service territory agreed to in 1989 by Vero and Indian River County, Brackett said he understands that Shores residents are customers first.

“I’m going to speak on my behalf, not this board, OK. If it was up to me, I’d let the Shores go where they wanted to go. I don’t want unhappy customers, OK?” Brackett said.

“We don’t have to have that business to survive. We’re just trying to build a plant, and I have to know how many customers I’m going to serve,” he said. “If a customer wants to leave me, I’m in business right now and I’ll do what I can to salvage them.  But if they leave, I’m not going to hold them hostage.”

Vero is trying to plan and permit a new, state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant at the airport so the sewer plant on the Indian River Lagoon can be torn down to pave the way for redevelopment of the riverfront utility sites north and south of the Alma Lee Loy 17th Street bridge.

The cost of the plant plus other upgrades to the utility system to maintain environmental compliance is expected to cost upwards of $80 million.

The city plans to impose a new rate plan in 2022 after a full rate study to pay for the new plant, and Vero’s rate consultant estimates that water-sewer bills for the average customer will increase $17.66 over a 10-year period based upon spreading the cost among all of Vero’s current customers – including the approximately 15 percent of Vero’s customer base located in Indian River Shores.

“So if it was up to me personally, and you came to me personally and said I want to leave, the Shores decides they want to leave, that we have another alternative, I’d say go. But you haven’t said that. You said you want to explore options and meanwhile it’s holding me back from the ability to build a wastewater treatment plant,” Brackett said.

“We’re moving forward with it regardless, but it’s been a difficult decision to make. So that’s why we’re trying to resolve this. That’s just my humble opinion, I can’t speak for my council.”

As to the separate, Vero-Indian River County dispute resolution process, Vero feels negotiations are already at an impasse after an exchange of letters back and forth with the county, while the county wants one more meeting to declare an impasse in public.