FP&L appearance at Vero meeting leaves ratepayers hanging

VERO BEACH —  Florida Power and Light told the Vero Beach Utility Advisory Committee Tuesday the company needs more time to  complete a “high level financial analysis” of a potential sale of the electric utility and will meet privately with top city staff in about three weeks.

FP&L Spokeswoman Amy Brunjes, who serves as External Affairs Manager for this region, told committee members and the 60 or so people assembled to watch the meeting that the power provider could have answered some of the 76 questions submitted to it, but that “we would prefer to give you all the answers at once” and that “some of the questions are premature to answer.”

“We’re very thankful to work collaboratively with the City of Vero Beach,” Brunjes said, adding that FP&L had received all the data and documents it had requested from the city.

The financial analysis being conducted would reveal the potential impact of a sale of the utility — both on FP&L shareholders and on the City of Vero Beach taxpayers. That information, Brunjes said, would be shared with City Manager Jim Gabbard and Acting Electric Utility Director John Lee.

Should the information not be favorable to either side, talks may stop there. Brunjes expressed that FP&L is not totally comfortable presenting this information in a public forum as was expected at Tuesday’s Utility Advisory Committee meeting.

If negotiations progress from that point, Brunjes said FP&L would assemble a team consisting of key FP&L staffers from the legal, financial, transmission, generation and other relevant departments. That team would provide answers to the 76 questions submitted by the public, civic activists Dr. Stephen Faherty and Glenn Heran, and by members of the Utility Advisory Committee.

The committee allowed public input at the meeting and several citizens spoke about high utility bills and the need for the city to address utility issues.

Former Vero Finance Director and Utilities Director Tom Nason was asked to give an overview of what happened when the City of Sebring’s utility authority sold off its electric system after sinking $98 million into a speculative venture involving shipboard engines to generate electric. The idea did not bear fruit, forcing Sebring to embark upon what Nason called a “distress sale” of its electric, water and sewer assets and leaving the city in debt.

Nason at one point began to equate Vero’s complex bond holding situation with the situation Sebring found itself in at the time of its sale. Nason said the City of Vero has no right to sell, assign or transfer its rights or responsibilities under the bonds held by the Florida Municipal Power Agency.

“I want to thank Mr. Nason for explaining to us that the City of Sebring was a one-time situation,” said former Vero Beach Councilman Charlie Wilson, who is now spearheading a referendum effort to get the city out of the electric business. “It was only an issue because the City of Sebring was upside down, which is not our position.”

Wilson went on to detail how Vero Beach residents, officials and employees have been fighting about what to do with the electric system for at least 34 years. The referendum would be open to City of Vero voters only as a way to settle the question once and for all.

Though one committee member, Dick Chapman, announced his resignation from the committee due to the increasingly political, and in his opinion, short-sighted nature of the recent debate, Chairman Lee Everett stated that he thought putting the question to the voters was a positive step. He said the city would need to look at the many facets of the issue, including the financial and the intangible.

“I’m very glad that we’re heading down this path because we have a chance to do it right and have a very thorough study,” Everett said. “The owners of Vero Beach electric should be brought into the decision. They paid for the system through their taxes, that’s why the referendum is so important.”

Citizen  J. Rock Tonkel, a community leader from Grand Harbor and electric customer of the city, appeared disappointed that Tuesday’s meeting did nothing to move the potential sale of the utility forward, but he voiced his appreciation to Brunjes for showing up.

“I want to express on behalf of 1,000 residents of Grand Harbor that we’re delighted that you’re taking this seriously,” Tonkel said, citing what he views as the pluses of the prospect of selling out to FP&L, including “regulatory accountability and a history of stable rates.”

No other power providers participated in the meeting, though at least one representative from the Orlando Utilities Commission was on hand to observe the proceedings. The next public meeting regarding the potential sale of the utility has not yet been scheduled.

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