INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — The long-awaited recommendations of a study to evaluate the feasibility of consolidating all or part of the Indian River County, Vero Beach and Indian River Shores water and wastewater systems moved one step closer to fruition Thursday after a meeting of the joint committee tasked with the challenge.
The six-member committee, led by former Shores Mayor Tom Cadden, has asked Orlando-based GAI Consultants to bring back a proposal for the initial phase of the project — hashing out the pros and cons of various actions related to Shores and county franchise agreements up for renewal in 2016 and 2017 — by April 20.
The Indian River Shores Town Council will consider the proposal at its regular meeting scheduled for April 22. The County Commission and Vero Beach City Council will entertain the pitch from GAI on May 4. Work is expected to begin almost immediately after a contract is approved and executed by all the entities.
During the meeting, there was discussion about the length of the process, with GAI mentioning that the committee might want to take the issue in “baby steps” and to “string it out” and suggested that they may have some recommendations on options by Christmas.
Indian River County Utility Director Erik Olson flatly rejected this suggestion, emphasizing that time is of the essence.
“I would hate to think that we’re going to sit here and study this for the next 10 years,” Olson said, adding that studying for even two years is too long.
Olson said he would encourage GAI to plan on completing the first phase of the study sooner rather than later. He said he wasn’t sure what kind of time pressure the other staffers were under, but that the Board of County Commissioners is expecting an answer by late spring.
The first phase will involve collecting data about system assets and operations from all the entities and interviewing key officials on all sides to determine how much political will exists among the county, Vero and the Shores to embark upon a major consolidation effort, which may involve the formation of a utility authority.
“It’s imperative that you interview the elected officials and make sure they want to go through with this, because, if they don’t, we’re going to spend a lot of money and all we will have done is aided your company in a depressed market,” Cadden said.
The rest of the committee, including Vero Utility Director Rob Bolton reiterated Cadden’s sentiment.
“A lot of it is going to be an educational process for the elected officials because they’re not utility experts,” Bolton said.
“These two franchise agreements are the central issue,” said Vero Public Works Director Monte Falls. “They’re going to come up for a decision regardless of what we do.”
The second phase, which would be dependent upon the level of support among the entities to cooperate, would look at various economies of scale that could be created by merging or linking the systems.
A full appraisal of the systems would take an estimated nine to 10 months, but Cadden said the entities don’t need legal appraisals in order to decide whether or not to renew or terminate their franchise agreements.
Committee members generally voiced consensus that the impending franchise agreements for water and sewer are the hot-button items.
About 38 percent of Vero’s water and sewer customers live outside the city limits and have been placing increasing pressure on their elected officials to offer some relief from high utility rates.
The committee was appointed in October and has been working the past five months just to hire a consultant. Cadden, pleased to have the process finally moving in a productive direction, said after the meeting that he was glad “to know where everybody is at” on the issue.