INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — When nearly 5,000 petitions arrived in mailboxes last week asking Vero Beach electric customers to support ramped-up regulation of the utility, Rep. Debbie Mayfield came under fire from city and county leaders accusing her of political grandstanding.
County Commissioner Gary Wheeler called the direct mail piece “low class politics.”
Interim Electric Utility Director John Lee termed it “a very well-crafted, well-done piece of misinformation.”
City Manager Jim Gabbard said had he been informed, “We could have helped her and prevented a lot of angst on the part of the people who received this.”
Even Vero Councilman Brian Heady pummeled Mayfield for using public funds to print and mail what he views as “a total waste of tax dollars,” inferring that the flier was a self-serving campaign ad.
A lot of heat over a flier asking residents to support placing the city’s electric utility under Florida Public Service Commission regulation as a public utility, just like Florida Power and Light, sent by a woman who along with her late husband Rep. Stan Mayfield, has been working on this issue for nearly three years.
About 80 percent of the City of Vero Beach electric customers live in Mayfield’s district. A majority of them can’t vote for the city decision makers. Those folks, the ones who have been chanting “taxation without representation,” are the ones Mayfield targeted with her petition mailing.
The November municipal election can attest to the rage already felt by the citizens overwhelmed with electric bills sometimes three times higher than they’d ever paid, and the city’s unwillingness and county’s inability to do anything to help.
Two days after the mailers hit mailboxes last week, Mayfield’s office reported it already had received more than 300 completed petitions back, with about 50 more coming in with each day’s mail delivery. It would seem that she is merely reflecting, rather than stoking, the anger and frustration.
Mayfield said she is up for re-election in November, but at this point it does not appear she is facing a tough race. To date, no one has filed to run against her to represent State House District 80.
Mayfield’s battle is against the City of Vero Beach Electric Utility.
“This is nothing personal and I told the City Manager that it was not personal,” Mayfield said, describing her dealings with Jim Gabbard and other city officials as very cordial.
Rather than stirring the pot, Mayfield said she and her staff would much rather solve the problem and have conditions improve for their constituents.
“I think it is important to understand that our office sends out correspondence on a daily basis in response to inquiries made by my constituents. These inquiries are not just about the utility issue but also seek assistance with foreclosures, unemployment, consumer complaints, public assistance and other issues or problems constituents are experiencing,” Mayfield said. “In the month of December alone my office opened over 30 constituent cases which do not deal with the utilities.
“With that being said, the utility issue has dominated all other request for assistance this past year and has generated the most communication from constituents.”
There is no doubt that Mayfield has raised the ire of the City of Vero Beach by taking on the electric issue. Vice Mayor Abell even accused her of not being around very much.
“I am here as much as I need to be here, this is not a full-time job,” Mayfield said, pointing out that she also runs a business and holds down other employment to support her three sons. “As a representative, it’s my duty to be out in the community, not just in the office and I also do a lot of work from home.”
Mayfield has backed legislation “requiring that the city set rates that are fair, just and reasonable” and be governed under Florida’s regulator body, the Public Service Commission.
Under full regulation as a “public utility,” the city would need to justify its rates and revenue requirements to the PSC. Over time, this could jeopardize the practice of using millions of electric revenue dollars to pad the general fund and keep property taxes low for city residents.
Mayfield said she has no problem with the city getting a reasonable return on the electric utility.
“They are entitled to make a profit, but it’s a matter of what is the appropriate profit that they should be able to take out to subsidize the city operations.”
Tinkering with the numbers
The current controversy could have been avoided if the City of Vero Beach was able to make up its mind about how it counted its customers.
In the spring of 2008, Rep. Stan Mayfield became determined to bring some relief and some representation to all the City of Vero Beach electric customers – even though it was too late in the legislative session to introduce a bill specific to Vero Beach.
He and south barrier island resident Stephen Faherty came up with the idea of creating an independent utility that would take over management of the electric utility, removing final decision-making authority on rates from the Vero Beach City Council. In the closing days of the session, Mayfield pushed through House Bill 7135, which he thought would require the city to put the following question to a vote: “Should a separate electric utility authority be created to operate the business of the electric utility in the affected municipal electric utility?”
He phrased the bill so that it would apply only to Vero Beach, using a customer base of 30,000 to 35,000 that the city had provided the PSC based on the number of meters in the system. The city then decided to only count “named customers” instead of meters and came up with was less than 28,000, leading to the city’s claim that the Mayfield bill did not apply to Vero Beach.
When Rep. Debbie Mayfield took office in November 2008 following her husband’s passing, she put the city on notice that the issue was not dead.
“I was going to introduce legislation that first session (2009), but the city asked me to not to do it to give them time to work on it,” Mayfield said. “I told them I would give them time to work on it but that I would suggest they get together with the constituents and especially the county residents to see if you can resolve the issues. When I saw that there was nothing being done, and that there was no progress, I tried to bring something up mid-session last year but it didn’t have the support of the delegation,” she said.
The challenge to the city posed by Mayfield was to voluntarily establish a meaningful, independent Utility Authority. “But they didn’t want to do that, they wanted to have total control,” she said.
As weeks and then months ticked away, Mayfield said she saw and heard about the real human suffering caused by exorbitant electric bills. She knows all about the undue burden being placed on families, retirees and business owners.
The city maintains its position that they’re “working on it,” but Mayfield’s patience with the city’s inaction has come to an end.
“I told him, ‘Jim (Gabbard), you go do whatever you need to do because we don’t know what’s going to happen with the legislation,'” she said. “The purpose of this is to protect the city residents and the county residents and to give more transparency.”
Despite opposition from the City of Vero Beach, momentum is building for Mayfield’s legislation. On Dec.1, The Indian River Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution in support of bringing the city utility under PSC regulation.
On Jan. 26, the local legislative delegation will meet with City of Vero Beach officials to discuss the proposed local bill to regulate the electric utility at 9 a.m. in the council chambers at City Hall and is open to the public.
Mayfield hopes to have enough public support and enough petitions in hand to convince her fellow legislators to help her launch the bill. It will be submitted to the leadership of the Florida House and Senate, sent out to committees to be fleshed out and then, if successful, it will go to the floor for a vote. It would place the City of Vero Beach Electric Utility under full PSC regulation as of the date the bill is signed into law.
Though her intent is not to drive the city to sell out to FPL or any other utility, Mayfield has gone on record saying that being regulated by the PSC may cause the city to re-think the continued wisdom of staying in the electric business.
“If they’re going to continue to be in the electric utility business, you’ve got to be regulated by the people who do this, who regulate the utility business,” she said.