County brings Vero Beach to table for utility summit

By Michael Bielecki

VERO BEACH — Indian River County Commission Chairman Wesley Davis got his wish Tuesday, when the Vero Beach City Council agreed to attend a utilities summit on Oct. 15.

After months of meetings and back-and-forth comments about broaching the topic of utility consolidation, Davis decided to take his case directly to the council, where he faced a tough crowd. Overcoming the prejudice held by some of the council against past members of the County Commission, the council finally agreed to attend by a vote of 3-2 with Vice Mayor Tom White and Councilman Bill Fish dissenting, on the grounds that the meeting was premature and should have been postponed until more information could come to light.

The purpose of the 9 a.m. meeting at the Richardson Center is to discuss the consolidation of city and county water and sewer utilities. Indian River Shores will attend as the town is researching its options for utilities after its franchise agreements with the city expire in October 2016. Fellsmere, too, has been invited but for reasons of creating a partnership with the city to provide water services to annexed lands east of Interstate 95 which are slated for development in coming years.Most of the meeting’s subject matter will concern water, sewer, and irrigation utilities.

“It boils down to which is the best way to move forward,” said Davis. “Is consolidating the answer? I’m not sure, maybe leaving it status quo is the best we can do? That’s the nature of the meeting we’re having.”

Davis was bold in telling the city council that he would hold the meeting without representation from them if they decided not to come.

“I can’t imagine them holding a meeting without us,” said Debra Fromang. “The timing is unfortunate from our perspective, but I don’t think we have any choice but to go and make sure our questions are asked and answered. We need to get a serious list of questions together for this meeting.”

City Manager Jim Gabbard vowed to work hard over the next two days to gather up information to prepare the council for the meeting. Davis promised to arrange for a large packet of documents to be provided to council members by Wednesday, “everything we have,” he said, would be shared with city officials.

“The people at this meeting will want to hear from us,” said Gabbard. “They want to hear what our thoughts are. From what Wesley told us tonight, our involvement at this point will be limited, and they aren’t looking for a set commitment.”

Frustrated with the fact that he approached then-Commission Chair Sandra Bowden two years ago and was left hanging because the county had no extra capacity to serve city customers, Mayor Sabe Abell admitted grudgingly that a cooperative venture could be a possibility. Since then, the county has made major investments in the infrastructure of the utility system to accomodate growth which never materialized due to the recession and the real estate downturn.

“Two years ago we threw this out there to the County Commission and it didn’t get answered,” said Abell. “I think it’s totally inappropriate that the County Commission schedule a meeting that involves a big issue with Vero Beach without getting our opinion on the meeting. The problem has not been us. Vero Beach would spend up to $58 million if we agree to do this.”

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