Pressure on Vero to reduce electric rates sparks talk about action

VERO BEACH — As reality sets in over Vero’s electric rates still being one third higher than Florida Power and Light — even under the new contract with the Orlando Utilities Commission — some members of the Vero Beach City Council are trying to infuse some urgency into the situation.

During an explanation of the new format of the electric bills at Tuesday night’s city council meeting, discussion turned from how the bills are detailed to a more pressing matter — why the rates are still so high.

“People are hoping we get it together, we need to reduce our rates now and bring our rates in line with FP&L now,” Councilman Ken Daige said. “It’s fine to talk, but at the end of the day we need some action.”

However, the only action that was proposed was a workshop with date to be determined, to look at ways to reduce the expenses of the electric utility. Since the costs of buying power from various sources is out of the city’s control, operational costs and the nearly $8 million transfers into the general fund are the only things on the table.

Over the past few months the council, led by Mayor Kevin Sawnick, has gradually warmed to the idea of reducing the direct transfers from the utility into the general fund. That $5.9 million is only part of the problem, as another $1.8 million is transferred to cover general and administrative costs the city claims it incurs as a direct result of supporting the needs of the electric utility.

It takes a 113 employees — plus the use of administrative, technical and cashier staff — to run the electric utility. Sawnick stated publicly last week that he sees the necessity to make cuts in staffing across the board, which would impact the electric personnel.

“I want to make sure that the employees know that we’re looking out for them and we’re looking out for the public as well,” Sawnick said.

Councilman Tom White told the audience and his fellow council members that reducing rates is no longer something the city can choose to do — it must do it or potentially lose control of operating an independent electric utility.

“They’re talking 35 percent difference from FP&L, I’m trying to save our electric system,” White said. “We’re going to have to do something to make our rates more compatible, the council is going to have to do something about our rates.”

Former Councilman Charlie Wilson, to show that he is serious about a proposed city referendum that could force the sale of the electric utility, introduced Elizabeth Brooker of Vero firm Brooker and Rooney, who will be assisting with the language of the petitions and the referendum.

The group formed to promote the referendum is expected to begin collecting the required 1,060 signatures in March to put the item on the November ballot.

In response to this, White said the city’s only hope of avoiding a sale of the electric utility — either by the proposed referendum or by sheer political pressure from angry customers — is to bring rates down to a point where the difference between Vero and its neighbors on FP&L is negligible.

“We’re destroying ourselves if they get that referendum through,” White said.

White said the city, and especially the council, has been “kicked to death” the past few years about high electric rates

“What this is doing is it’s giving people like Mr. Wilson ammunition, he’s got an attorney and he’s going out with petitions,” White said.

The main problem, according to Councilman Brian Heady, was that the city, in its efforts to quell the public outcry, gave customers unrealistic expectations of what rates would be like under OUC after the January turnover.

“I don’t dispute that there was cold weather (in January that drove up usage), but for a long time, we told people that our rates are going to be equal to or lower than FP&L and we waited till January and our rates are not equal to or lower than FP&L, they’re 35 percent more.”

White agreed that even his personal expectations were higher than what has materialized.

“We’ve sat here and kept our mouths shut for the past six or seven months and let people come up here and rip us,” White said. “We have to own up to something. We thought that this was going to be the holy grail, that turns out to be a false assumption.”

Vice Mayor Sabe Abell, who has stated in public meetings he doesn’t mind paying a premium for the city to control its own electric service, was the lone holdout in regard to doing something drastic about rates. Instead, Abell told customers once again that if they just wait a little longer, things will get better.

“What everybody needs to understand is that you won’t see the full effect of the new rates until the March or April bills,” Abell said. “You have to be patient and see what the bills are going to be when we’re not seeing this record cold weather.”

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