Commissioners want water, sewer consultant to stick to plan

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – The Board of County Commissioners want the consultant charged with charting out the future for regional water and sewer service to stick to the plan – get the data, analyze it and then make a recommendation.

The consultant, GAI Consultants of Orlando, has proposed instead to meet with 15 politicians from the county, the City of Vero Beach and the Town of Indian River Shores to get their thoughts on the project.

“This is like a marriage,” Commissioner Wesley Davis, explaining one side says “yes” and “we’re questioning everything.” On Monday, a joint committee of members from the county, Vero Beach and Indian River Shores voted 4-2 to approve GAI’s proposal of interviewing all the elected officials from each government and collecting data from each regarding their water and sewer systems.

This would be the first part of a first phase of what could end up being a multi-year project with fees mounting upwards toward a half million dollars.

Commissioners, with a vote of 4-1, asked Olson and Brown to go back to the committee and try to get GAI to forego the individual interviews and instead focus on attaining and analyzing the data.

Earlier in the day, the Vero Beach City Council voted unanimously to approve GAI’s proposal.

GAI wants nearly $40,000 for the interviews and collecting the data – and another nearly $130,000 for the analysis of the data.

The county’s representatives, Utilities Director Erik Olson and Budget Director Jason Brown, cast the two dissenting votes.

Olson affirmed that he’s wholeheartedly behind the concept of an objective consultant doing the analysis of the data.

Olson said prior to the commission meeting that the county and Vero are starting with a situation where there is no trust and having a neutral third party will help establish that groundwork that would be needed for any collaborative effort to succeed.

“At this point, I could say the sun rises in the east and someone might take issue with that,” Olson said after Monday’s meeting. “And by the same token, (Vero Beach Water and Sewer Director) Rob Bolton could say that it sets in the west and someone might question that.”

Olson and Brown both praised the expertise and diligence of the members of the committee, adding that they just don’t see eye to eye on the scope of the first phase of the study. Vero and the Shores see divining the political will of the players as a priority, while the county staff and officials stated that they want to make a non-emotional, apolitical decision based on sound numbers — specifically whether or not ratepayers would be better off under a different scenario.

“They’ve got good people on the committee,” Olson said of the other committee members at the commission meeting.

Davis asked if the county should just “shoot down” GAI by voting against accepting the proposal. To do so would have meant the committee would have to meet with the next consultant in line to hash out a price and scope of work and put the study even farther behind schedule.

The committee had expected to have the study complete by late spring or early summer. GAI expects to have its first phase done by mid-October.

“I’ve got a lot of problems with this,” Commissioner Bob Solari said. He said that the purpose of having a consultant is to have objectivity in the issue, not inject politics into it.

“It’s going down the wrong way,” Solari said.

He added that if GAI has such a lack of understanding of what the committee is asking from it, he does not have confidence in moving forward with the company. 

Solari, who was the lone vote against proceeding with the firm, suggested that the three entities “move down the list” and request a proposal from second-place Post, Buckley, Shuh and Jernigan out of Orlando.

The consultant is supposed to review the water and sewer franchise agreements between the county, the city and the town to determine if any changes to the services need be made.

The Town of Indian River Shores is currently a water and sewer customer of the City of Vero Beach. The city also serves the water and sewer needs of south barrier island – which lies outside the city’s limits.

Both the Shores and the county need to notify the City of Vero Beach by a date certain that they either want to remain customers or terminate their agreements. The Shores needs to decide by November 2011 what it wishes to do in 2016 and the county has a few months longer to contemplate its options. By March 2012 the county must notify the city of its intentions.

The consultant is expected to make a recommendation as to whether the county and city’s systems should – or could – be merged, if the status quo should be maintained, or if Indian River Shores and/or the south island should become county customers instead.

Vero customers are slated to see rate hikes of 37 percent over five years for water and 60 percent for sewer service. The county has no rate increases on the horizon for at least the next five years.

Lisa Zahner contributed to this report.

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