VERO BEACH — Near the end of an all-day meeting, the Vero Beach City Council voted to let it be known to power providers that, under certain circumstances, it would be open to considering selling the electric utility.”Could we face the public ever again after today and say that we asked if we can consider a sale and we said no?” Councilman Charlie Wilson asked rhetorically of his fellow council members before the vote.The motion was in response to an offer made on Nov. 16 by representatives from Florida Power and Light that they would gladly conduct a comprehensive study and valuation of the city’s power assets, should the city council indicate a genuine willingness to sell and barring any insurmountable legal or financial roadblocks. Bringing out the inequities between the rates of the City of Vero Beach as compared to other utilities has also been the avocation of concerned citizens Dr. Steve Faherty and Glenn Heran over the past couple of years. Citizens having meetings about utilities, writing letters and speaking before the city council has been a large part of the impetus to move the council to action.”I’m ecstatic, I think it’s great. It’s a giant step in the right direction. It can’t hurt and it might help,” said the accountant who has put countless hours into studying and analyzing the utility operations. “They’ve got to have the citizens involved, you can’t do this with just staff and absolutely I would be willing to help.”The measure was something Wilson wanted to get accomplished just in case he would not be present at the next city council meeting, as his eligibility to hold office will be on trial Wednesday in circuit court.”Finally after years of hide and seek, the council finally, for the first time was forced to consider a sale, although it was like pulling teeth to get a very simple council position,” Wilson said after the meeting.At points during the discussion, it appeared that Wilson did not have the backing to get the other two votes he needed to move the council off-center on this issue, but with a rewording of the motion and a few caveats that the city would not do anything to infringe upon the pending contract with Orlando Utilities Commission, Mayor Kevin Sawnick added the vote that sealed the deal. “With the help of Mayor Kevin Sawnick and Councilman Heady, it is now public policy that if someone brings us a good deal for residents and ratepayers, we can now give it a fair hearing.”Vice Mayor Sabin Abell cast the sole dissenting vote, as Councilman Tom White had gone home during the lunch break and not returned to rejoin the meeting due to illness. Abell continues to stand by the city’s choice to maintain its independent power generation facilities, citing that Vero Beach customers experienced only short times without power after the 2004 hurricanes, where many others across the state were in the dark for weeks. Abell said that factor alone is worth the differential (which is currently 56 percent and estimated to be 20 to 30 percent post-Jan. 1) that he and others on the Vero system pay for power.It is anticipated that power providers would meet with the city’s Utility Advisory Commission to discuss options and then an effort would be undertaken — with the assistance of city staff — to accurately and assess the fair market value of the assets. “There is nothing wrong with this going before a commission,” Councilman Brian Heady said. “We should certainly rely on our advisory committees to address the nuts and bolts of what Councilman Wilson is looking for.”A proposal presented to the city council back in 2006 to do such a valuation by using out-of-state utility consultants was estimated to cost $300,000 and the council at the time did not have the desire to pursue that option and did not commission the study.The council directed City Manager Jim Gabbard to have a conference call or meeting with OUC and Mayor Sawnick to inquire if the $20 to $50 million penalty clause would be triggered if the city decided to sell the power plant, transmission and distribution equipment. Under the contact, if the city failed to hold up its end of the deal or wanted to pull out of OUC service all or in part prior to the first seven years, it could be subject to a hefty penalty.Thinking it may be his last chance to bring up any issues before the dais, Wilson also questioned the validity of the OUC contract and asked the City Attorney to examine whether changes made between the redacted version and the unredacted were “material” to the contract. He also expressed — folowing a heated exchange where City Attorney Charles Vitunac offered an empassioned speech about why the city should not sell off its electric assets — Wilson declared that he has serious doubts about the objectivity with which advice is doled out by the city’s legal staff. Wilson did not go so far as to call for the review of Vitunac’s employment contract.Also in Tuesday’s meeting, Heady asked for and received the consensus of the council to pursue budget-neutral options for turning the now-defunct Dodger Pines Golf Course into a working facility again, and possibly a venue for training students who wish to pursue careers in golf course maintenance and management.
Heady said he has spoken with Dodgertown’s Craig Callan, who is affiliated with Minor League Baseball and that he was positive about helping the city make a more constructive use of the $9.9 million investment, which now lies fallow.