State hearings on Vero electric sale underway

TALLAHASSEE — Seven local elected officials and teams of attorneys are in the state’s capital city Thursday morning for a hearing triggered by challenges to the June 5 Florida Public Service Commission approval of the sale of the Vero Beach electric utility to Florida Power and Light.

Mayor Harry Howle, plus council members Tony Young, Laura Moss and Val Zudans are representing Vero, along with City Manager Jim O’Connor. County Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan and Commissioner Tim Zorc are present on behalf of Indian River County, and Mayor Tom Slater is on hand to represent Indian River Shores — all in solidarity supporting the sale of Vero electric to FPL.

The hearing was scheduled to begin on Oct. 9, but was postponed due to Tallahassee all but shutting down for Hurricane Michael.

The Civic Association of Indian River County lodged a challenge to the PSC’s decision, setting off a months’ long process culminating in Thursday’s hearing. Attorney and former Vero councilwoman Lynne Larkin is appearing on behalf of the Civic Association.

Vero’s attorney Mike Walls of the Carlton Fields law firm fired the first shot across the bow, characterizing Larkin’s and her members’ objections as an irrelevant discussion of local political issues by former elected officials who oppose the sale.

“I don’t know why she’s here,” Walls said of Larkin. “These are all matters of local political concern.”

The Florida Office of Public Counsel is also appearing as a party objecting to the PSC’s June 5 decision.

Larkin in her opening statement claimed city officials have attempted to squelch opposition to the sale. “Endless calls for careful review of this deal have been ignored,” Larkin said.

Larkin also criticized the numbers FPL submitted to the PSC, and said she would call into question whether or not Vero’s electric customers who live outside the city and do not vote for Vero City Council decision-makers are truly “disenfranchised” as long claimed.

The first witness to be called just before 10 a.m. was FPL Vice President of Energy, Marketing and Trading Sam Forrest, who testified about the benefits of the sale and the background about how deep concern over high Vero rates evolved over the past decade into the current $185 million deal on the table.

There are two core issues to be reconsidered by the PSC, the first being whether the Vero Beach electric sale constitutes “extraordinary circumstances” and whether or not FPL should be able to pay $116.2 million more than the nuts and bolts of the Vero system is worth, according to “book value.”

The PSC is scheduled to break for lunch at 1 p.m. and to reconvene for open public comment at two minutes per person for as long as that takes. Members of the public commenting have been advised that they may be cross examined.

If needed, the PSC has reserved Friday to continue the presentation of evidence and the testimony of called witnesses. At the start of the evidentiary portion of the hearing, there were 61 exhibits entered into the record.

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