By Michael Bielecki
VERO BEACH — Indian River County Commission Chairman Wesley Davis received the three votes he needed Tuesday after making a personal appeal to the City Council for Vero Beach to attend a utilities summit on Oct. 15 with other county municipalities.
After months of back-and-forth comments about utility consolidation, Davis decided to take his case directly to the Council. Overcoming the animosity held by some of the Council against the County Commission, the members finally agreed to attend by a 3-2 vote.
Vice Mayor Tom White and Council Member Bill Fish offered the dissenting votes, stating the meeting was premature and should have been postponed until more information became available. Voting in the affirmative were Mayor Sabe Abell and Council Members Debra Fromang and Kevin Sawnick. The purpose of the meeting at the Richardson Center will be 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,” Fromang said. “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 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.”