Piper, pitchers and power, a satirical look at the year that was in our county

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Who would have guessed that Vero Beach – quiet, little Vero Beach – in one year would have seen:

 Its major private employer, Piper Aircraft, sold to a Muslim kingdom known as the Abode of Peace;

 Its major tourist draw, Dodgertown, sitting empty after the Dodgers’ defection to Arizona;

 Its electric utility, for years a source of power and pride, at the heart of a scandal over squandered dollars and soaring rates.

The electricity debacle – which had residents last summer in a literal lather – ultimately became the defining story of what some now refer to as Vero’s “Year of Living Sweatily.” Not since the 2004 hurricanes have so many houses been so warm, and not since the 2001 anthrax scare have envelopes – these containing utility bills – been so fearfully opened.

In reflecting back on 2009 there was a lot of good news as well – stories of the amazing generosity of residents who did their best to support a variety of worthy causes and non-profits during these unsettling times. We carried a number of stories throughout our first half year on these laudable activities. Generosity, however, is praiseworthy — not funny.

So in this column, with some of help from our sister publication Vero Beach 32963 (since it has been chronicling the goings on in the County longer than we have been in existence), we look back on 2009, focusing on and parodying some of the events that left us scratching our heads.

With apologies to Dave Barry, we offer this, our year-end review. As Barry would say: “We are not making this up. At least, not all of it.”

We should have known this was going to be a strange year in . . .

JANUARY

. . . when the year begins in painful irony: Piper Aircraft announces it will not seek millions in taxpayer incentives that it never stood a chance of receiving.

With the stock market tanking, many of the high-fliers who had placed orders for new Piper planes are cancelling purchases in favor of 30-day Greyhound bus passes. As a result, the county’s largest private employer is laying off and furloughing hundreds of local workers – not adding jobs as called for in the incentive agreement.

But Piper informs the county it will be expanding soon as the result of a contract with Boeing to build the new Dreamliner, and asks for another $1.2 billion in new subsidies. Excited city officials immediately announce plans for a 4,000-foot extension to the Vero Beach Airport’s main runway.

Meanwhile, negotiations aimed at bringing the Baltimore Orioles to Vero Beach to replace the Los Angeles Dodgers appear dead after it is revealed that Baltimore’s owner is demanding that Holman Stadium be turned into a 38,000-seat sports complex.

The Orioles also are seeking a 50-year lease of the old city-owned Dodgertown golf course, which they want to turn into a new downtown rivaling West Palm Beach’s City Place. “If we had approved what they wanted on the property, it probably would have brought back public hangings,” says Vice Mayor Tom White, one of the few who appears to feel public hangings are not a good idea.

Mayor Sabe Abell suggests that using the overgrown golf course, long fallow, for “walking trails” would be far more rewarding. Vero Beach City Attorney Charles Vitunac, who presides over a city legal staff approximately the size of that of Los Angeles, immediately hires a $420-an-hour specialist in walking trails to assess the city’s potential liability.

Meanwhile, Vero Beach managers push ahead with a plan to “save money” by creating a new part-time municipal health clinic for city employees. While the employees would retain the current health coverage that enables them to see the doctor of their choice at virtually no cost, city officials claim most would want to go to the municipal clinic so they would not have to take so much time away from their jobs.

It is not disclosed whether the clinic’s rent-a-docs would be qualified to treat cases of uncontrollable laughter.

Speaking of uncontrollable laughter, in . . .

FEBRUARY

. . .the Vero Beach City Council decides to break with its 40-year tradition and shift its meeting time from early Tuesday evenings to Tuesday mornings. The reason given: Having the meetings during the work day would be more convenient for city employees. Why? A couple of Council members are having trouble staying awake after 8 pm.

City management, meanwhile, continues its effort to win Council approval of the municipal health clinic. Consultants to the city – who claim they are working on the project at no cost – up their claims of potential savings from the clinic to three-quarters of a million annually. Alas, the methodology by which they arrive at this number, they insist, is a secret and cannot be revealed.

Also secret until we publish a story is news that Vice Mayor Tom White flew off on a junket to Washington — at Vero taxpayer expense – for a meeting of a Florida League of Cities committee on which he doesn’t serve. His receipts, turned in for reimbursement to the city though no prior approval for the trip was given, include three nights at the Washington’s four-star Hotel George.

That excursion turns out to be less costly than his trip to a resort in Oregon the previous fall for a “training” conference which cost Vero taxpayers $1,200. Most of his fellow City Council members aren’t aware of that trip, either. Even fewer seem interested in inquiring into the nature of the “training.”

Back in Vero, more than 4,000 residents attend Aviation Day at the Vero Beach Airport. The event includes flights in vintage bombers and a fighter plane. When Piper discovers that an hour in the P-51C Mustang two-seater goes for $3,200, it announces it is opening a new assembly line for the Mustang – and asks Indian River County for $1.6 billion in incentives.

Meanwhile, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, an attorney who made his fortune suing people, makes a final effort to push through an agreement to conclude a spring-training deal with some Florida city by doing what he does best – threatening to sue Vero if it discloses any details of its aborted negotiations. Vero Beach City Attorney Vitunac immediately hires a $460 an hour non-disclosure consultant.

Speaking of baseball, in . . .

MARCH

. . .Indian River County hints that major league baseball may indeed return to Dodgertown, though it won’t say which team. That may because no team – major league or minor league — is showing any interest. The confusion appears to stem from Angelos’ warning that Vero Beach is looking at a “major league” lawsuit.

Meanwhile, self-proclaimed novelist, would-be movie producer, and ersatz architect Lewis Barton begins work in earnest on a 45,000-square-foot oceanfront home on a quiet street north of the Moorings, which he refers to as the Athena Marie Plantation.

Plans for the house call for it to have three windmills to generate electricity on the roof, as well as a helicopter landing pad.

Learning of this, Piper inquires whether Barton might be interested in ditching the helicopter pad and substituting a rooftop short-take-off-and-landing (STOL) strip. If so, Piper says it is ready to begin producing a new STOL aircraft, and asks Indian River County for $1.8 billion in incentives.

With the economy continuing to tank and the price of gold soaring, gold buyers set up shop most every weekend in local hotels offering to pay top dollar for old jewelry.

A secret shopper who visits one of them is warmly greeted by the “jeweler,” whom he recognizes as the used car salesman who sold him a 1985 Yugo. As the jeweler was taking his “outrageously generous” offer for a gold bracelet to his used car, er, used jewelry manager for approval, our shopper beats a retreat.

Back on the subject of baseball, in . . .

APRIL

. . . Minor League Baseball (the organization, not a minor league team which actually plays games fans can watch) is revealed as the entity that will take over Holman Stadium.

“You might not see 9,000 people like you did when the Red Sox came to town,” said one county official, choking back sobs, “but if you take the totality of what will be coming over time you will be getting more use out of the facility.”

The big rumor for a time is that the “totality” would include a new professional football league – the United Football League – which would train here in the early fall. Among the rumored stars of this rumored new league is quarterback Michael “Mad Dog” Vick. All these plans fall through shortly after City Attorney Vitunac hires a $500 an hour dog-fighting consultant.

Meanwhile, Piper says the company – now down to 38 employees — is in a better position to come out of the recession than others in the aviation industry. “We already have plans for a new supersonic transport on the drawing board,” a spokesperson says, adding that it would only take $2.1 billion in incentives to keep Piper here to build that plane.

Meanwhile, Vero city management continues to press the effort to set up a health clinic for municipal workers. Various disinterested consultants – only one of whom hopes to make money operating the clinic – now contend it would save the city of Vero Beach $2.1 million a year.

In an on-going effort to protect the health not just of city employees but all beachside residents, the state sends inspectors to the pantheon of peril, the new Saturday morning Farmers’ Market. They give the heave-ho to countless high-risk items being sold by renegade under-licensed vendors, like homemade brownies and inadequately labeled jams and jellies.

Alarmed at this invasion of Vero Beach by state militia, City Attorney Vitunac hires a $470 an hour food-and-drug consultant.

Speaking of crackdowns, in . . .

May

. . . County Administrator Joe Baird is stopped by police after leaving a dreadfully dull charity function. Understandably in need of a drink, he candidly tells the officer he was on his way to the Long Branch Saloon. That may not be the best way of avoiding arrest for DUI.

Meanwhile, the city of Vero Beach announces that residents can expect a 5 percent increase in their power bills in May, with another increase of 2 percent expected in July. John Lee, the utility’s customer service representative, issues a heartfelt mea culpa, calling it “an unwelcome surprise.”

Then in a stunning development, Piper Aircraft announces it has been sold to investors acting on behalf of the Finance Ministry of the Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace, a country located on the north coast of the island of Borneo. Speculation about the motive for the purchase runs rampant until it is learned that the nation’s 87-year-old exalted leader has a collection of 213 antique Piper Cubs.

The consultants pushing for a health clinic for municipal employees, meanwhile, claim their proposal could produce savings of $13.2 million if Indian River County would team with the city so the clinic could serve both city and county employees. County Administrator Baird opposes the idea, saying most visits to the clinic could be avoided with “a little nip o’ the brandy.”

In another amazing development, in . . .

June

. . . Vero Beach fossil hunter James Kennedy drags out of storage an ancient bone etched with a clear image of a walking mammoth or mastodon. Anthropologists say the bone is at least 12,000 years old, and call it the oldest piece of artwork ever found in the hemisphere.

Local auctioneer Ron Rennick Sr. estimates the value of the bone as high as $10 million. Kennedy then picks Rennick over art auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies to auction the bone.

The City Council finally holds a “public” meeting about its proposed employee health clinic. Three hours into the meeting, Mayor Sabe Abell is jolted to life by nurse Fromang — and agrees to take questions. Key opponents have long since given up and left.

At mid-month, June electric bills begin to arrive, and it turns out they are up way more than 5 percent. John Lee, the utility’s customer service representative, calls it “an unwelcome surprise.”

As customers begin clamoring for the City Council to do something about electric rates, Mayor Abell suggests raising thermostats and turning off ceiling fans to save money. As globules of oil paint begin to drip onto the marble gallery floors, the Vero Beach Museum of Art begins moving priceless artwork outside to the shade of Riverside Park.

As the furor over electric bills mounts, in . . .

JULY

. . .the skyrocketing electric bills prompt new calls for the city of Vero to get out of the utility business and sell its plant to Florida Power & Light. Bills increase on average by another 78 percent , and the utility lets it be known it is broke. John Lee, the utility’s customer service representative, calls it “an unwelcome surprise.”

Meanwhile, a consultant hired by Vero Beach’s consultant on insurance matters not only refuses to endorse multi-million-dollar savings from a municipal employee health clinic, but says the city’s health care costs might actually go up.

“We couldn’t recommend any cost savings,” says Alison Pool, consulting actuary for the Wakely Consulting Group, a firm specializing in the health care industry based in Clearwater.

With that, the air seems to go out of the drive to establish a municipal employee health clinic. “If they don’t want to save $18.9 million a year, that’s just fine with me,” one of the consultants that had been pushing the scheme huffs.

We would be remiss if we were not to point out on July 12 VeroNews.com launched with its eye on all things going on in Indian River County. From our humble beginnings we have seen our audience and usage numbers grow each month.

The huffing over the electric bills only grows in . . .

AUGUST

. . . as the Vero Beach City Council finally posts on its website the 20-year contract the city has signed with an Orlando- based power provide.

So much key information was redacted from the electric contract that City Council members were shown that the City’s budget for Wite-Out is totally depleted. John Lee, the utility’s customer service representative, calls the shortage of Wite-Out “an unwelcome surprise.”

As the Baltimore Orioles head to their new winter home in Sarasota, eight months after talks collapse over Dodgertown, city and county officials proclaim that the playing field at Holman Stadium has never been in better shape.

“You can’t believe how nicely manicured the grass stays when no one plays on it,” a county official says.

Meanwhile, for the first time in Vero Beach history, summer turns into a mini-season, filling the Costa d’Este pool with what locals refer to as “the boy-toys of summer.” Asked why they find Vero appealing, a number of Miami guests tell Vero Beach 32963: “Because there are so few Miami tourists.”

Speaking of Miami, Vero’s quest for some of the accoutrements of life in the big city come to fruition in . . .

SEPTEMBER

. . . when Fresh Market opens the area’s first high-end food market on Miracle Mile.

A stampede of slow-moving mammals foraging for organic foods and free samples of same presses through the aisles, marveling at the awesome selection of great stuff for supper, and the social possibilities in chatting up cool people at the butcher counter.

On the electric front, Unit 5 of Vero’s municipal power plant is forced offline due to overheating. The City Council approves $200,000 for Bag Balm. John Lee, the utility’s customer service representative, calls it “an unwelcome surprise.”

While some historical structures are worth keeping around, in . . .

OCTOBER

. . . St. Edward’s School announces it will sell the quaint Lower School campus in Riomar, as part of a comprehensive plan to put the school on a sound footing for the future. The city immediately proposes buying the land to create more greenspace. “Look at what a success our purchase of the old Dodgertown Golf Course has been,” says former Mayor White.

White also turns out in October to have been the only member of the Vero Beach City Council who claims to have read the full 68-page, multi-billion-dollar contract signed with the Orlando Utilities Commission.

The other four were offered a copy but declined to take it, says City Manager Jim Gabbard. The Council Members were briefed for an hour on how the city arrived at its choice of the Orlando power provider, and were shown a copy of the contract – but with 13 pages blacked out. Asked what was blacked out, City Attorney Vitunac said, “It was just the numbers.”

As temperatures back off the boiling zone, campaigning heats up for two City Council seats. With a field of seven candidates including two incumbents, a prior council member and the legendary Brian Heady, the race promises to be as rowdy as nearly every Council meeting in the months since electric bills have soared.

Meanwhile, from jail comes news that disbarred attorney Ira Hatch has found Christ with the help of beachside resident Glenn Bradwell, who heard a “small, still voice” tell him to minister to Hatch after seeing a photo of Hatch in the morning paper.

Hatch is awaiting trial on 57 counts involving the mishandling of $4.5 million in clients funds through his now-defunct law practice and his escrow company. While he may have found Christ, Hatch lost 60 pounds, Bradwell says, and the $4.5 million hasn’t been found.

With anger over the electric situation still at a fever pitch, in . . .

NOVEMBER

. . .voters oust two incumbents, and elect professional outsider Charlie Wilson and perennial candidate Brian Heady to the two Vero Beach City Council seats up for grabs.

Four days later, the new council members are sworn in and elect Kevin Sawnick, a 27-year-old teacher, as mayor. Sabe Abell, denied re-election as mayor and chosen as vice mayor, refuses to relinquish his office, and the ever courteous Sawnick agrees to move into what was apparently intended as a walk-in closet.

As a grand jury begins investigating the city of Vero Beach over its confidential contract with the Orlando Utilities Commission, newly elected Council Member Wilson requests a special meeting to discuss options to the contract. For the first time, Florida Power & Light is asked if it is interested in buying the Vero Beach utility.

Meanwhile, a little-known resident, Dian George, files a challenge to Charlie Wilson’s win, questioning residency requirements that Wilson himself questioned when he first registered to run. Asked why she filed the suit, George tells Vero Beach 32963: “Because of what he did. I voted for him, but then I found out what he did.” She declines to elaborate on “what he did” – and everyone else seems afraid to ask.

Speaking of not asking, in . . .

DECEMBER

. . . Judge Paul Kanarek rules that Charlie Wilson did not ask the right questions about residency requirements for the Vero Beach City Council, and voids his election, sending him back into the phone booth to change out of his tights and cape.

Then after Vero Beach 32963 runs multiple photographs comparing their respective offices, Sabe Abell finally vacates the mayoral office, allowing the new mayor, Kevin Sawnick, his rightful window view, flag of Florida and wingback chair. VeroNews.com ran the first picture of the new Mayor, behind his new desk, sitting in his new chair.

As the furniture is relocated, Abell is heard to mutter “Naugahyde is so louche.” Meanwhile, Sawnick says he is fine with tabling his request for a new Jim Morrison mousepad until prospective replacements for Charlie Wilson’s seat can be interviewed on the matter, adding he would like to see if they know who Morrison is.

Meanwhile, just in time for the annual Christmas parade, every inch of sod in Humiston is ripped up and tossed out as part of the re-do, leaving a giant patch of dirt for all the dressed-up children to get filthy in.

But parents now have a perfect perch from which to watch the floats: a tidy, low retaining wall. And so, it becomes obvious that the park, like most other efforts at change in our ever-cautious communities, is going to turn out just fine after all.

Happy New Year!

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