Electric bills stun businesses, nonprofits

By Lisa ZahnerVERO BEACH — Sky high electric bills combined with near-record heat and the challenging economic environment are turning 2009 into a summer of discontent for local businesses, churches, schools and theatres as well as residents who get their power from the City of Vero Beach utility department.As first reported in Vero Beach 32963 Thursday, the unexpected — and generally unfathomable — twenty plus percent increase in electric bills that has occurred in the past couple of months is not simply putting the squeeze on homeowners. It is a tremendous extra burden for shops and restaurants and a drain on nonprofits such as Riverside Theatre, the Vero Beach Museum of Art, all struggling to survive Vero’s traditionally slow summer months. The City Council, meantime, after hearing from Finance Director Steve Maillet that the utilitiy is “broke” and “limping along” financially, will hold its next City Council meeting is July 21 and the next meeting to discuss utility rates will be on July 30.It’s the only thing people who come in here want to talk about,” said Callie Corey, proprietor of Corey’s Pharmacy on Ocean Drive. “People are worried, They are afraid to open their bills.”Once residents open their bills, many of them call Debbie True at Holy Cross Catholic Church for help. True said the parish takes up special collections to help folsk in dire straits. People can’t pay their electric bills and buy food, some of them are unemployed but most of them are working and they just can’t afford the increase in the electric bills,” she said. “We’ve been giving them Wal-Mart cards so they can buy food with that and helping them get food from local food banks so they can pay their electric bills.”As for the church itself, they have unplugged the appliances in the Parish Hall, but there are no plans to eliminate masses from the schedule or have parishoners sweat through worship services.”The Eucharist does not stop because of the electric bill,” she said.Marty and Mary Sue Walker, owners of Cravings on Ocean Drive, also hear the moaning from local residents and shopkeepers as they file in for morning coffee and baked goods. Marty said he has called the City numerous times and asked for answers, advocating for some relief for local small businesses.”What are we supposed to do, they’ve got us over a barrell and I’m livid about it,”Walker said. “Nobody can give you any answers and nobody takes responsibility for this. Nobody will just tell you that they made a mistake, they all just say it’s the fault of the people who were there before, but a lot of those people are still there.”No matter whose fault the skyrocketing bills are, the Vero Beach Museum of Art has no control over its electric bills, as the 54,000-square foot facility must maintain a temperature between 72 and 74 degrees to protect the art owned by and on loan to the museum.John Moses, Managing Director of Riverside Theatre, said his last electric bill – up $2,500 from the month before – is putting the crunch on the theatre’s bottom line. “It’s certainly not an uplifting postion to be in, we’re coming into a time when we have to increase the budget not to grow programs, but just to maintain what we have.”Moses held a meeting with staff giving them marching orders about saving electricity and he had to add $20,000 to the current year’s budget to plan for at least six months of huge power bills until rates subside, which the City has promised will happen in January or soon after. That’s when the City will switch horses, so to speak, from the Florida Metropolitan Power Agency to the Orlando Utilities Commission as a way to buy power.Rick Terry, owner of ReMax Premier Property Showcase on Old Dixie Highway in Vero Beach can’t hold out until bills go down. The bill for June service at his office tallied $335 for usage and $355 for power cost adjustment, for a total with taxes and fees of more than $700. With the real estate market being in the dumps for more than two years now, he’s making some tough decisions. Even though his office is busy and his agents very productive, the utility costs are still a stretch.”Our lease is up and we can’t consider a move inside the City,” Terry said. “We’re going to have to relocate outside City electric because of the bills.”

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