VERO BEACH — Florida House Bill 1397, dubbed the Mayfield Bill, which would place the City of Vero Beach Electric Utility under the regulation of the Public Service Commission, is in danger of never being considered by members of the Military and Local Affairs Committee, which must approve and forward all local bills for a vote by the full House.
Rep. Debbie Mayfield said she was told by Rep. Dorothy Hukill, chair of the Military and Local Affairs Committee, that she would not place the bill on her agenda, therefore killing any chance the bill had of becoming law. An attorney and two-term representative who is also running for U.S. Congress, Hukill represents the Port Orange area in Volusia County.
“She told me she would not agendize the bill because she was afraid that it would set a precedent, but it’s the chair who has to put the bill on the agenda,” Mayfield said. “But if there are other constituents being served by other municipal utilities who are having the same problems that we’re having in Vero, why shouldn’t those utilities also come under PSC regulation?”
Mayfield said lobbyists hired to protect the financial and political interests of city and county-owned utilities have been working the halls in Tallahassee hard in the past few weeks. She was visited three times by Bill Peeples, a lobbyist for both the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Municipal Electric Association.
“Bill Peeples tried to get me to drop the bill,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s also been talking to other members about the bill.”
Mayfield said she was meeting Wednesday evening with Speaker of the House Larry Cretul and Speaker Designate Dean Cannon as the pair of senior legislators she believes are probably the only ones who could convince Hukill to give the bill at least a hearing in the committee.
Mayfield said she had also enlisted the assistance of Sen. Joe Negron, as he formerly served in the House and has a good relationship with its leaders. The bill was approved prior to the start of session by the local legislative delegation, with only Rep. Ralph Poppell dissenting and mounting a case against the legislation.
Negron voted with Mayfield and Sen. Mike Haridopolos signaled his support via a letter read into the record at the meeting.
Local activist Glenn Heran, a forceful proponent of the city selling its utility to Florida Power and Light, said he received an e-mail from Mayfield about the bill’s status.
“The regulation is so important for this reason, you want to protect all the customers, but you especially want to protect the 61 percent of customers who live outside the corporate limits of the city,” Heran said. “The city is an unregulated price monopoly and the people have a larger voice in going to the PSC and we’ll have a better chance at fighting for the territorial agreement.”
Opponents of the bill have branded it as “another level of government” and have said it would end up costing the ratepayers more money for the city to comply with all the reporting requirements of the PSC. Mayfield has countered by saying that the PSC is already in existence, so this bill is just using an existing entity.
Florida Power and Light, which is regulated by the PSC, charges rates about 30 percent lower than the City of Vero Beach, partially because the company often is not granted rate increases it requests if the PSC cannot justify the extra burden on customers.
Under PSC regulation, the City of Vero Beach would have to go through the same process as FP&L whenever a rate increase was being contemplated.
As a certified public accountant who has conducted audits of municipalities, Heran said he also regards the fact that the PSC would look at the city’s books. The PSC would also require the city justify its revenue requirements, its rates, the transfers into the general fund and the necessity and prudence of past and future bond issuances as very important to the ratepayers.
“The regulation should also create greater transparency in financial reporting,” he said.
Heran urged anyone concerned about the issue to call or e-mail the committee chair or other members of the committee to influence the chair’s decision.
Mayfield said that any local show of support could help move the issue forward, but that constituents should not use form letters, but instead should share their personal stories about the City of Vero Beach Utilities and give the facts of the situation.
“The fact of the situation is that the city has used this electric utility as a cash cow by transferring over $5 million a year into its general fund, and that the majority of that comes from people who cannot vote for the city officials so there is nothing they can do,” Mayfield said. “The fact is that we’ve been fighting for this for three years.”