Vero ‘noncommittal’ about county taking over wastewater treatment

By Lisa ZahnerVERO BEACH — The Indian River County Utilities Department has requested a meeting with the Vero Beach City Council to begin discussion about regionalizing wastewater treatment, but after a session on Monday, County officials came away not knowing what the next steps would be.”They were extremely noncommittal,” said County Commissioner Bob Solari, regarding where the issue stands now. Solari arranged the meeting through Vero Beach Mayor Sabin Abell after months of back-and-forth discussions and a presentation by the County to the City of Vero Beach Utility Advisory Committee earlier this year. Erik Olson and his staff at the County Utilities Department have figured the expenses for several scenarios regionalizing some or all of the services provided to residents, as the County already has the capacity to handle the wastewater the City produces. Olson said the climate is favorable to regionalization, both on the funding side and the regulatory side, but that time is of the essence.”Erik said that there’s a window of opportunity of about the next three years in regard to the grant funding,” Solari said. Options on the table would range from the County simply pumping wastewater from the site of the City of Vero Beach treatment facility and treating it at the Central and/or Western County facilities, to the County eventually handling of all water and sewer utilities for the City, and other options in between.The cost of diverting the wastewater to County facilities, depending on the route and destination, would cost between $38 and $54 million, which would have to be paid by the City. Solari said that expenditure could be offset by a savings in planned capital improvements in the City’s long-range plan that would be unnecessary. After a period of higher costs, he said City customers could then enjoy the net benefit of reduced utility rates, as wastewater treatment is cheaper per gallon the more volume is treated.Solari said the main obstacle to regionalizing the water and sewer utilities is the fact that the City now uses the utility revenue from City and non-City residents as an enterprise and transfers money into the general fund to pay for City operations. Depending on the model devised, the City could lose that advantage and may have to raise the millage rate.”Taxes would have to go up temporarily, but the money I saved on utility bills would enable me to pay the increased taxes,” he said.City of Vero Beach Utilities and Indian River County Utilities customers currently pay about the same rates for water and sewer, but both City and County residents hooked up to the Vero system are looking at a 52 percent increase in wastewater rates over the next five years if recommended rate increases are adopted by the City Council. The City model is based on covering the fixed costs by spreading them among its customers. However, the more consumption goes down, the higher rates will go to meet those static operational costs.”By the consultant’s report presented at the June 17 meeting, the City is looking at flat usage through 2014,” Solari said. “This doesn’t account for the conservation measures that will be put in place by the St. Johns River Water Management District, which will reduce usage. Plus, whenever you raise rates on water and wastewater, the usage is going to go down.”City Manager Jim Gabbard did not respond to questions if the County would be allowed to make the presentation to the Vero Beach City Council. Updates will be posted as information is received from the City.

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