Business owners scale back staff, cut hours to handle electric bills

VERO BEACH — As electric bills continue to soar, business owners have had to come up with ways to keep their doors open, employees paid and their electricity turned on.

For some business owners, the escalating electric rates have forced them to choose between paying their bills and keeping staff.

Tom Lureau, owner of the Arby’s restaurant on US 1, told the Vero Beach City Council at a recent meeting that he has had to cut back on his staff because of the electric bills.  

He said that he typically has 24 employees during the summer at the restaurant. This summer, he had to cut 10 employees.

“We won’t be here,” Lureau told the council. “We can’t survive.”

Lureau is circulating a petition along with three other eateries in Vero Beach seeking to get a referendum on the ballot that would give residents and businesses the option to choose between Vero Electric and Florida Power and Light. Kountry Kitchen, Clubhouse Bar and Grill and 2002 Restaurant are three others circulating the petition.

Lureau isn’t the only one making business changes because of his electric bills.

Penny Chandler, executive director of the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce, said that members who responded to a survey the chamber circulated said that the utility bills have affected their bottom lines.

She said that 64.5 percent of the respondents said that their utility bills were affecting how they operate their businesses. Chandler added that some have decided to close their doors for one extra day to help offset their bills.

Another 53 percent said that — at the time of survey — they do not believe they have a “personal, sound understanding” of the utility rates they are charged.

Chandler said that the chamber has been working to provide information to members about the Vero Beach electric utility.

“They have to keep their ears to the ground and pay attention and not take any of this for granted,” Chandler said of the electric’s customers.

Vero Beach Utilities Customer Service Director John Lee said that his department has noticed an increase to the number of calls his staff is handling, though he could not say how many of those callers were seeking assistance with their bills.

Last week, the staff handled 1,640 calls — up 15 percent from this time last year, he said. The representatives are also logging more time on individual phone calls.

Lee said that his department works one on one with callers who are finding it difficult to pay their utility bills — but just how many of those callers are asking for help is unclear. Lee said that they do not keep track of the requests for assistance.

The city offers on-site reviews to help business and homeowners find electric and water efficiencies. The department also offers an online home energy audit, which might offer some insight for business owners as well. The audit can be accessed by visiting the city’s Web site, www.covb.org and selecting “City Departments” then “Customer Service” then “Online Home Energy Audit.”

Businesses and residents can also request to have their utility bills issued weekly instead of monthly if they find it easier to pay the smaller amount more frequently.

“It’s a very desperate time,” Lee said, adding that in his 37 years of working in this career, these are the most trying times he’s seen.

Lee said that of the 35,000 utilities customers (electric, water and sewer) the city serves, 10 percent are past due on their bills and subject to having their services cut off. Of those, only about 3 percent of the bills go uncollected.

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