By Lisa Zahner
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Rockridge and local communities like it are becoming ground zero in the battle with the City of Vero Beach electric utility.
Dr. Steve Faherty, who has made studying the inner-workings of the elecric, water and sewer utilities his avocation over the past two years, spoke at the Rockridge Property Owners Association to about 75 residents both confused and concerned about their soaring electric bills. He urged residents to launch a letter-writing campaign to state politicians to fight for their right to buy cheaper power from Florida Power and Light. Rockridge residents are upset because they are paying the price for high utility bills without the right to vote out city politicians because they live outside the city limits. “Compared to people who live in the city, you’re paying 10 percent more. It’s a surcharge that’s buried in your bill,” Faherty said. “And you’re paying 58 percent more than someone on Florida Power and Light service.”
He outlined the history of the electric utility since the 1976 attempt to switch to FPL and reminded residents about the nearly $5.9 million being transferred into the City’s general fund from electric bills to subsidize the city’s low property taxes and that 61 percent of city electric residents live outside the city. He cited another $2 million from the water and sewer utilties and $2.8 million in payroll and administrative costs charged to the utilities, the tab totalling nearly $11 million into city coffers as “return on investment” from running the utilities.”And $7 million of that $11 million is coming from you all and you don’t have a word to say about it,” he said. “I’d rather give that money to the county for all our benefit.”Faherty and Association President Phil Carpenter, a Rockridge homeowner since 1992, were collecting email addresses to distribute a letter template that could be mailed or emailed to the local legislative delegation.”We want you to send letters that you are not in favor of the rate increases and that you want to get out of the city utility and that you want to go to FPL,” Faherty said. “You would also need to do a resolution of your Board of Directors saying that you support this.”Carpenter and his group intend to mobilize the 413 families they represent.”We’re tired of being ripped off,” Carpenter said. “I want to help the people in Rockridge and the people in Indian River County. If we don’t start today, we won’t be able to get what we want to do tomorrow.”The goal is to get a local referendum on the November 2010 ballot so county residents can vote either to stay with the City of Vero Beach for electric service or to go with FPL.”It’s not going to provide immediate relief, but it’s a way to get us out of this,” he said. “We want the right to vote our own destinies and we want to control our own costs. We want to go to FPL.”Residents complained that — while they’re waiting for legislation to go through in more than a year — they are on the verge of getting their electricity shut off beacuse of past due bills they can’t pay. Comments ranged from the city’s unwillingness to explain the situation and why the bills are so high to its inflexibility in making payment arrangements with struggling residents trying to keep power on for the children and elderly.Members of the crowd voiced disbelief that anything would change in January when the city switches to the Orlando Utilities Commission for power.A beachside resident who also lives outside the city, Faherty has been working with communities involved in the loosely knit South Beach Property Owners Association on his mission to shed light on the electric utility. He attends every public meeting where electric or the budget of the electric utility is being discussed. He puts in requests for all the paperwork and spends hours pouring over all the numbers.
County Commissioner Bob Solari represents Rockridge as part of his district. He spoke after Faherty, conveying the latest news about the water and sewer utility and the proposed 50 percent rate hikes over the next five years. A former Vero Beach City Council member from 2005 to 2007, Solari opened his talk on a personal note.”I just want to say how glad I am not to be on the city council right now,” he said.During his tenure on the Vero Beach City Council, Solari maintained a stalwart but lonely oppostion to staying in the electric industry. He requested monthly financial data and kept an eye on things, determined that the city should not be in the business of running an electric utility. He also has problems with the way the water and sewer utilities have been run, but then financially, requiring such huge increases beginning in October.”The county is in the utility business to provide a service to the residents of the county, but the city is in the utility business to put money in the general fund,” Solari said. “The county utility puts all the money back into the utility into renewal and replacement.”Solari told Rockridge residents that they are fortunate to be hooked up to county utilities for water and sewer, as the county is not proposing any rate increases for at least the next five years. He conveyed that the county was able to refinance some bonds and save close to $3 million that could be passed on to the consumer. Solari chastised the Vero Beach City Council for not owning up to the state of the electric, water and sewer utilities.”The city council members were recently surprised when they found out that they would have to borrow money for the utilities,” he said. “They just had their budget hearings in July and there they look at some of the information and then they don’t look at it again for another 21 months until they have the audit.”Public hearings on the city’s plan to raise electric, water and sewer rates are scheduled for the Aug. 18 City Council meeting and then town hall meetings on Aug. 25 and 26.