By Debbie Carson, Online Editor
VERO BEACH – About 100 city and county residents who are customers of the Vero Beach electric utility turned out at the Vero Beach City Council meeting Tuesday evening, many to speak out against the high electric rates.
One customer noted that his bill went up, even though he used less electricity. Mayor Sabin Abell suggested that in October, when the nights begin to cool, residents could lower their electric bills by opening some windows.
Despite the angry expressions, the Council approved without comment City Attorney Charles Vitunac’s request to send the city’s proposed electric rate structure — which calls for the electric base rate to increase — to the state Public Services Commission for review. Public hearings will be held on Nov. 3 and 17 to allow customers to express their opinions on the proposed rate increase. But did not wait until November and instead spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, even though the electric rates were not an item on the agenda.
David Simmons told the council that his electric bill went up $16 over what he paid the month before – even though he used six kilowatts less than the prior month.
“This does not make sense to me,” he said. “I’m not blaming you for it. I don’t know who to blame.”
Resident Harvey Rosenbaum told the council that in the last month he saw his electric bill jump from $300 to $800.
It “seems unconscionable” that the council would do what it’s doing, he said of the proposed rate increase. He said that people can’t afford their mortgages and they are being foreclosed on or forced into a short-sale, both of which continue to depress the real estate market.
“Please don’t add to the misery,” Rosenbaum pleaded.
Another resident, who rents out several homes in the city, said he s having a difficult time keeping the homes rented.
“People are paying more for electric than they do rent,” he said.
Another resident told the council that while he was happy to hear that the electric base rate would go down, bills have already shot up – with water and wastewater rates now also increasing.
He added that people are taking pay cuts due to the economy.
“I don’t make much,” he said, adding that he lives with his girlfriend and 2-year-old child. “We’re trying to survive.” After living in Vero Beach for three years, he said he’s getting ready to move out because they can’t afford it.
After more than an hour and half of public comment, nearly two dozen people had spoken out about the electric rates, including four challengers for the two seats that are up in the coming Vero Beach City Council election.
Abell addressed the audience during the public comment portion, telling them that the city has not adjusted the base electric rate since 1992 – that the increases come from fees passed on from the electric cooperative the city belongs to.
He said that by turning off five of eight fans and bumping his air conditioning up one degree, he had seen a savings of $85 on his electric bill.
“We’re just sick about this,” said Councilwoman Debra Fromang, who is running for re-election. “Nobody wants these high bills.”
She said that the bills would be lower come the switch to the new electric partner but added that she did not know if the decrease would be sufficient.
“We’ll have to see,” Fromang said.
“I’m not a happy camper,” said Vice Mayor Tom White of the electric bills, noting that he gets hit twice – once at home and again at his business.
“If we could stop these outrageous charges we would – in a heartbeat,” he also said.
Councilman Kevin Sawnick said that the council has to keep all its options open in terms of finding solutions and deciding what’s best for the city.
“It’s rough for me,” he said. “I’m not rich.”
Sawnick added that even those who are rich are hurting, too, over their electric bills.
“It’s really tough,” he said.