Talks about consolidating some City, County utilities go a step further

By Lisa ZahnerVERO BEACH — With the City of Vero Beach facing the prospect of renewing and relocating parts of an aging utility system and the County poised with excess capacity and new wastewater treatment facilities, the two sides are talking about ways to join forces, if it’s good for utility customers.On Tuesday, City Mangager Jim Gabbard brought Vero Beach City Council members up to speed on what’s happened so far. County Utilities Director Erik Olson and Engineer Mike Hotchkiss made a presentation to the City Utility Advisory Commission in February about some options for taking a regional, in our case a County, approach to the handling of wastewater. The County system, which was born in 1983 and has undergone recent upgrades, paid for in cash by the County, has two major treatment plants and enough capacity today to accomodate the normal daily volume of wastewater from the city.The City has its own plant on the Indian River Lagoon, which has been the source of much consternation from local residents who dislike the smell and feel the City could find a much more aesthetically pleasing use for such prime waterfront real estate. Environmentalists have also voiced concerns about the risks of having raw wastewater in that close a proximity to the lagoon. There are plans to move the treatment plant to a location near the airport in 8 to 10 years, according to Rob Bolton, director of the water and sewer utilities for the City.The City’s system is also aging, with much of the pipe system dating back to the World War II and post-war era. County Budget Director Jason Brown said the county system has about two years’ operating cash on hand, while the city’s water and sewer systems have been running a negative cash balance, according to Finance Director Steve Maillet, since the beginning of the summer.Proposals on the table range from about $38 to $58 million to create interconnectivity of the two systems, according to the County’s estimates. That capital expenditure would be shouldered by the City. Bolton said that is about the same amount that moving the plant to the airport would cost.Bolton pointed out that there are concerns other than cost.”Sometimes bigger isn’t better and there are some good reasons why you would want to have more than one system with the ability to serve an area,” he said.One instance would be in a major storm event, where one system could experience backups and the other system could hook up and help pump the water out of streets and neighborhoods. Bolton said this happened after recent tropical events.Gabbard has directed Bolton to meet with Olson to come up with cost estimates and proposals that both the City and County can stand behind, and then to come back to the City Council with the results.”It doesn’t cost anything to listen,” Gabbard said. “Everybody wants to do what is for the greater good.”Chairman Wesley Davis, who met with City officials on the topic in August, has placed an item on the Board of County Commission agenda for Sept. 8.Commissioner Bob Solari, who has been trying to broker this deal with Mayor Sabin Abell for months, set up a meeting prior to Davis’ meeting to open the discussion. Solari said he hopes the City is entering this into good faith with a genuine intent to work something out, if possible.”They have no business model going forward,” Solari said. “I hope they look at all the options and decide what is the right thing to do for all the rate payer and the taxpayers in the City.”One thing that may make a consolidation option more attractive to the City is the fact that they are looking at possibly losing about 20 percent of water and sewer customers to the County in 2017.  The County UAC passed a resolution to notify the City that county residents intend not to renew a contract for service, which expires in 2017 and requires a 5-year notification. The Town of Indian River Shores has appointed former Mayor Tom Cadden to review all of its utility franchise agreements with the City and to come back to the Town Council with recommendations. The Town could also pull out of City water and sewer services.Currently, the City spreads its operating costs over its customer base. If that customer base shrinks by 20 percent, the same cost would have to be spread among fewer customers.With the City already facing 37 percent increases in combined water and sewer rates on October 1 and significant rate hikes each year until 2013 to make their business model work, losing those customers could be of serious concern.

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