Vero electric customers helped scuttle Mayfield bill

VERO BEACH — If you’re one of Vero electric’s 34,000 customers, you helped lobby against and ultimately kill the bill introduced by Rep. Debbie Mayfield to place Vero Electric under the Public Service Commission jurisdiction.

Vero electric customers helped quash the bill by paying $35,000 in annual dues to the Florida Municipal Electric Association which fought tooth and nail against the Mayfield bill aimed at forcing the Vero Beach Electric Utility to seek state approval for future rate hikes. Even worse, electric ratepayers not only ponied up the membership dues to the organization which lobbied against and ultimately killed the Mayfield Bill; electric customers also in large part fund the salaries, benefits and pensions of the top city staff not to mention the salaries and health insurance of City Council members fighting to keep the city bound to rates 35 percent higher than Florida Power and Light.

The FMEA’s reason for existence is to promote and defend the right of municipalities to own and operate electric utilities, and to pad their general funds with the revenues.

The Mayfield Bill threatened to chip away at the autonomy of those utilities, called munis, because the PSC would force them to justify not only their current rates and revenue requirements, but to get approval for any rate increases.

FMEA Executive Director Barry Moline, whose organization represents the interests of 30 city or county owned utilities, appeared before the local legislative delegation in January to oppose the Mayfield bill.

Not willing to accept defeat when the bill passed muster with State Senators Joe Negron and Mike Haridopolos — over the staunch opposition of delegation chairman Rep. Ralph Poppell — the FMEA took its fight to Tallahassee.

On March 17, Rep. Mayfield told that the chairwoman of the committee that needed to pass and forward the bill onto the House floor to a vote had informed her she was refusing to place the bill on the agenda, therefore killing it before it saw the light of day.

April 8 was the last scheduled committee meeting where the bill could have been discussed and voted on, and it was never on the list of things to do. The chairwoman, Rep. Dorothy Hukill, represents parts of Volusia County.

“She told me she would not ‘agendize’ the bill because she was afraid that it would set a precedent,” 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 attorney Bill Peeples, a lobbyist who serves as FMEA’s legal counsel on legislative and regulatory issues.

“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.”

After the story where Mayfield urged constituents to contact Hukill’s office, her staffers say she was chastised for bringing a deluge of nasty calls and e-mails upon the office of not only a fellow House member, but a fellow Republican.

Hukill, who is running for Congress, needs the support of the voters of New Smyrna Beach, which has a municipal electric utility with rates just slightly lower than here in Vero, putting them 33 percent higher than FP&L — a prime candidate for PSC intervention.

Neighboring Daytona Beach, and Port Orange, where Hukill lives and pays her utility bills, are served by FP&L.

The FMEA’s Moline further infuriated activist, electric ratepayer and south beach resident Dr. Stephen Faherty by writing an Op-Ed published in the local daily strongly opposing Mayfield’s legislation.

“The FMEA says they believe that the most local control is the best when it comes to utilities — so why did they, a statewide organization, get involved?” Faherty asked. “It seems to go against what they stand for.”

Last week, the city called for any and all ideas to cut expenses going forward with “no crazy ideas” to be left out. Well, Faherty has one for the suggestion box.

“If Mayor Sawnick is truly serious about cutting the budget, I think they should eliminate the membership to FMEA and save us all $35,000,” Faherty said.

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