VERO BEACH – The Vero Beach City Council last night approved spending $94,000 on an appraisal of the city water and sewer system and another $79,000 for an optimization study of the utility.
The money will go to GAI Consultants, Inc., a company that specializes in determining the value of utilities, and goes on top of $323,000 the city has already agreed to pay the firm to evaluate its electrical utility.
Vero Beach is negotiating to sell its water and sewer system to Indian River County or merge it with the county system, and councilmembers said they approved the evaluation contracts to get a more accurate idea of what city assets are worth.
The optimization study will look for operational efficiencies that could increase the profitability and so the value of the utility.
The decision came at an action-packed meeting that lasted till nearly midnight at which a number of people spoke passionately in opposition to the merging the city system with county’s. The council chamber was packed with residents, including a number of utility employees, who applauded after each anti-merger statement.
Mayor Jay Kramer, the main opponent to the merger on the council, was supportive of the speakers, while Vice Mayor Pilar Turner strongly urged the need to go forward with gathering information and evaluating the pluses and minuses of the merger.
“There is no need to rush into anything, but we need to keep this conversation going,” Turner said.
Part of the public ire expressed at the meeting came in response to a presentation earlier in the day by Erik Olson, director of the county utilities, who told county commissioners that a merger deal could be in place as early as September, and that the two systems could be fully integrated within two years after an agreement is reached.
“This is not a monster project,” he told the commissioners at their morning meeting. “All of the pipes are already there.”
Some Vero Beach residents interpreted the September date as part of an attempt by the county to rush the deal through, but Olson said at the city council meeting that it was just a sample timeframe to consider as a possibility to give some sense of how long the process of evaluation and negotiation might take.
Conflicting figures were presented throughout the day about how much money Vero Beach residents would have to pay under a merged system compared to current rates. Olson said city residents would pay slightly less. Rob Bolton, director of the city’s water and sewer system, said they would pay more if the merger goes through.
Kramer supported Bolton’s version, citing figures from his own research he said showed a combination of basic rates and taxes on utility payments would end up costing Vero residents more if the merger takes place.
“I don’t see any benefit for us,” Kramer said.
Turner disputed that and said that an accurate model of what the city system will be like if it loses its customers in Indian River Shores and South Island is critical to a realistic rate comparison.
“I ask the council not to be short-sighted,” Turner said. “Don’t just look at what rates are now, but at what they will be in the city five or 10 years from now if we lose all those customers.”