Mayfield bill for oversight of Vero Electric Utility passes first test

VERO BEACH — Over the opposition of Rep. Ralph Poppell, a bill requiring state regulation of the City of Vero Beach Electric Utility was approved by a 2-1 vote of the Indian River County legislative delegation.The legislation, which has come to be called the Mayfield Bill after its originator Rep. Debbie Mayfield, received “yes” votes from Mayfield and from Sen Joe Negron, with Poppell the lone dissenting vote. Sen. Mike Haridopolos also voiced his support via a letter read into the record at the meeting. With the support of the legislative delegation, the Mayfield bill will now be put through the law-making process in Tallahassee. It will be debated and fleshed out in various committees and, should it move out of the committee level with support, will eventually come to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. After being sponsored in the Florida Senate, the bill would follow a similar path there.Prior to the meeting at the Vero Beach City Council chambers, Poppell had made it public knowledge that he intended to try to block the bill. To this aim, Poppell generally echoed the City of Vero Beach’s position about electric rates and why the city should not fall under PSC regulation. Indian River Shores Town Councilman Mike Oschner took Poppell to task for his opposition to the Mayfield bill.”Why is it that you seem to be so set on preserving the status quo?” Oschner questioned Poppell directly from the podium.Poppell responded that he wanted to “open eyes and ears to the fact that you may not want what you get.” Poppell was referring to some ethical problems the PSC has recently encountered.Kevin Sawnick read a brief prepared introduction for Acting Utility Director John Lee, who spoke against the legislation. Lee offered the point of view that the City has its utility business under control and that Vero’s rates are increasingly competitive with — though still higher than — Florida’s six investor-owned utilities.Barry Moline, Executive Director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, advocated against regulation and urged the delegation that the city was working earnestly to solve problems with the electric utility. Moline was offered up as an “expert” in the field, but Rep. Mayfield reminded the audience that, technically, he works for the city as Vero Beach is a dues-paying member of the power cooperative.Only one private citizen — former Vero Mayor Warren Winchester — spoke against the legislation.”I don’t like everything going on in the city or the county, but I don’t look to Tallahassee to solve my problems,” Winchester said.A long line of 13 constituents and county officials, many of whom were county residents on the City electric system, took to the podium in support of the legislation. County Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan and County Administrator Joe Baird spoke in support of the Mayfield bill, with Baird bringing some powerful numbers to bear on the discussion — the fact that ratepayers outside the city actually contribute about $6.5 million to city coffers where the city residents only pay about $5 million in ad valorem taxes annually.Sen. Negron, already on record supporting the Mayfield bill, was surprised at that number and asked Baird to repeat the figures and their significance.”My concern is that the city’s revenues through the electric bills are not subsidizing an entity that they don’t reside in,” Negron said.Poppell told Baird that if the county is so concerned about the plight of county utility customers on the Vero Beach system, that the county should reduce or eliminate its own 6 percent franchise fee on utility bills. This is an argument that has been used frequently by city staff.The 2010 legislative session officially begins on March 2, though committee meetings have been going on for the past couple of weeks.

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