Wilson’s pitch to utility committee fails to move electric issue forward

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – The county’s Utility Advisory Committee heard arguments Thursday for why Indian River County should jump into the Vero Beach electric utility fray, but it did not hear the presenter’s plea to have the county sue the city over the issue.

That came after the meeting from County Commission District 2 candidate and former Vero Beach City Councilman Charlie Wilson.

“The county should sue,” Wilson said. “We do have the right.” Wilson made a presentation to the committee Thursday afternoon, asking the committee for several things.

In the interest of fiscal responsibility, he wanted them to recommend to the Board of County Commissioners to direct staff to review the numbers he provided about the “cost of doing nothing” about the electric problem.

On the legal front, he wanted them to recommend to the board to direct County Attorney Will Collins to review the City of Vero Beach’s 20-year contract with the Orlando Utilities Commission – which would serve an estimated 41,000 county residents who are on city electric – to determine if the contract is legal and binding on the county residents.

Further, Wilson wanted them to ask the Florida Public Service Commission to review the same contract and change the power providers’ territorial boundaries to restrict Vero’s electric reach to only within the city limits.

He might have only gotten one request approved – but even that remains unclear as the committee’s chair could not recall if he had asked for and gotten a vote or just a consensus.

The clerk taking minutes had to be consulted and verified that committee members expressed support of asking county staff members to review Wilson’s numbers as presented, but that no vote was officially taken.

And whether enough of a consensus was apparent for the recommendation to move forward remained unknown.

“This is a theory,” said County Commissioner Joe Flescher, who is also running for the District 2 seat, of Wilson’s presentation. “This is hyperbole. This is hypothetical,” not set on a factual basis.

Flescher also took issue with Wilson intimating that the Board of County Commissioners was not doing enough to help the 41,000 residents who live in the county and are on Vero electric.

“I believe we are doing an awful lot,” Flescher said, referring to the board’s Dec. 1 meeting when the county expanded the scope of the UAC to include electric issues.

The board has also passed a resolution in support of the City of Vero Beach Electric utility coming under Public Service Commission regulation as a public utility –  as proposed in legislation sponsored by Rep. Debbie Mayfield.

“If you think you’ve done enough,” Wilson said to Flescher during the meeting, “you’re wrong.”

After the meeting, Flescher said he does believe that more needs to be done – but needs to stay the course of what the county has been doing by passing resolutions and writing letters to state legislators.

Before Wilson’s presentation, the committee agreed to ask the county commissioners to send a letter to Florida Power and Light to find out what it would take for the electric provider to lay the groundwork for expanding FPL’s territory to serve the 41,000 customers. If that territorial expansion were possible, the committee also wanted to know what rate FPL might charge.

They also asked that FPL review the possibility of purchasing the city’s municipal power plant, in tandem with the city’s invitation to FPL and other power providers study the value of the plant and make an offer.

Wilson reminded the committee that FPL is just one electric provider that might be interested in buying the electric utility.

During his presentation, Wilson displayed a chart showing how much money he believes the county’s residents have paid in taxes to pay the county’s electric bills to the City of Vero Beach – that total figure being $5 million last year.

Wilson said that if FPL had been providing power last year at the same rate it was offering the rest of the county, residents could have saved about $2 million.

The Vero Beach Electric Utility issues bills to the county for electricity used at various governmental buildings on the city’s power grid – including the County Administration Complex, the County Courthouse, schools, parks, lift stations and other facilities. Many of the county’s streetlights are also on city electric.

The county received more than $3 million in electric bills last year – an amount paid out of the county’s General Fund, which is funded through county taxes – paid by residents countywide.

About $2.25 million of that was paid to the City of Vero Beach, at a rate about 58 percent higher than FPL.

While Flescher argued the numbers Wilson presented were not factual, he said after the meeting that he could not argue the concept of the pass through cost to taxpayers.

“Ultimately, yes the taxpayer pays the bill,” Flescher said.

However, he took issue with Wilson bringing in the other municipalities into the discussion – pointing out that Wilson is a candidate for the county commission and would be voted for countywide.

“I think the rest of it is pure politics,” Flescher said during the meeting of Wilson’s inclusion of the municipalities in his chart.

Wilson admitted after the meeting that regrettably, in his opinion, Flescher took the presentation as a personal affront.

“I didn’t get a whole lot of support from the UAC, it was a direct confrontation between Joe Flescher and myself,” Wilson said. “He’s the commission liaison and he doesn’t want to do anything. Joe Flescher thinks the county has done all it can to protect the more than 40,000 people who live in the county and are on Vero Beach electric.”

Flescher later called Wilson as a “salesperson” who was “marketing” the residents of Indian River County.

“I had hoped to stand shoulder to shoulder with Joe Flescher,” Wilson said, disappointed, adding that a united front of he and Flescher working together to bring relief to county residents would be more effective than a battle over the issue.

Wilson plans to take his presentation to the county’s municipalities, the School Board, and Hospital District to make them aware of issue.

VeroNews.com Staff Writer Lisa Zahner contributed to this article.

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