VERO BEACH — During a campaign speech at the Vero Beach Rotary Club luncheon Thursday, city council candidate Charlie Wilson surprised the audience by announcing that, if elected, the first thing he will do is mount a legal challenge to the City of Vero Beach’s pending contract with the Orlando Utilities Commission for electric services.
Wilson made the announcement in response to information reported in our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963 newspaper, that only then-Mayor Tom White read the OUC contract in its entirety.
“I will challenge the validity of the OUC contract,” he said. “I believe that it is not possible for all the city council members to (legally) authorize the signing of a multi-billion dollar contract without reading it, this is not Washington, D.C.” The 20-year, $2 billion contract was approved by the city council in April 2007 and was kept confidential and out of public scrutiny for two years. It would go into effect on Jan. 1, when the city’s 33,000 electric customers — 61 percent of which live outside city limits — would switch from getting their power through the Florida Metropolitan Power Agency to OUC.
Staying in the power business, Wilson claims, is hurting the local economy.
“When a restaurant is paying three, four, even five times what their competitors are paying for utilities, they lay off employees. Indian River County has a 15.2 percent unemployment rate, the unemployment rate at City Hall is zero percent,” he said. “There are 108 city employees in the electric utility. How many private sector jobs will be lost to save 108 city employees?”
Wilson’s major beef is that the contract requires the city to retain ownership of the city’s aging power plant and other power resources for the 20-year duration of the OUC agreement and that, even after the contract period is over, Wilson claims, OUC will have first right of refusal to buy the power plant, even though Florida Power and Light is the adjacent power provider.
Since Wilson and other members of the public have had access to the contract, concerns have also arisen regarding the early-exit penalty, which would leave the city on the hook for up to $50 million should it not be satisfied with the service or rates imposed by OUC and wish to negotiate with another power provider. Council member Bill Fish said the $50 million penalty was a “surprise” to him and Ken Daige who is running for election after a one-year break from elected office after losing his bid for re-election in 2008, said he was told be city staff that the penalty language would be altered in favor of the city prior to approval of the final contract.
Despite an impending 12.5 percent increase in base rates which the city is proposing, council members and staffers have repeatedly promised that the net result of lower fuel costs from OUC would result in an estimated 20 percent decrease in electric bills once the conversion is complete.
“I will vote against the rate increase and will challenge the validity of the OUC contract,” Wilson said.
Candidate Susan Viviano also spoke at the luncheon and, at first, did not advocate getting out of the electric business, but by the end of the question and answer session, conceded, “I see no reason not to sell the power plant.”
Rotarian and certified public accountant Albert Van Derveer, who heard the announcement, reacted with shock about the revelation that city council members had not read the contract. A 20-year resident of the city, he said he will support Wilson.
“I think what he talked about doing is wonderful, it’s the first knowledgable thing or action that I’ve heard. I don’t know where these people have been,” VanDerveer said. “I just got my $700 utility bill, $590 of that is electric and there are people on social security getting $300-$400 per month electric bills. You can’t compete with FPL.”
Wilson and Viviano are two of the five challengers and two incumbents running for two available seats on the council. The election will be held on Nov. 3, with the first council meeting after the election scheduled for Nov. 9, where the new council members will be sworn in and the first regular meeting scheduled for Nov. 17.
To see profiles of the candidates and video interviews, visit our special election section Vero Vote 2009.