Vero Beach leaders might have an out from merging with county water, sewer

VERO BEACH — The joint committee of Vero, county and Indian River Shores officials meet Thursday morning to determine what the next step should be in studying consolidation of the systems. Dragged reluctantly into collaborating on a study that could put the City of Vero Beach’s water and sewer utilities out of business and leave top staff out of a job, the city may have found a politically expedient loophole for ending consolidation talks.

Last week, the Indian River County Planning and Zoning Commission approved amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan – the county’s long-term plan, so to speak – calling for county residents currently hooked up to city water and sewer services to either be served by a new consolidated entity or just by the county as of 2017. When Vero Beach’s Water and Sewer Utility Director Rob Bolton discovered this, he alerted City Manager Jim Gabbard. The city manager, in a series of meetings with individual City Council members, gave them his views on what is being characterized as the county’s lack of good faith.

Earlier this month, the County Commission approved a recommendation arrived at jointly with the city and the Town of Indian River Shores to hire consultants to study the various permutations of utility service to the three jurisdictions.

At the same time, the county’s own zoning board was moving forward with a policy to eliminate any city-run services from the picture.

A tape recording of Councilman Ken Daige’s meeting with Gabbard and Bolton reveals that the city’s top managers view the county planning commission’s exclusion of all but two options in the comp plan – even as the County Commission is approving study of a broader set of options – as an inexcusable case of double-dealing.

“We’re getting some feedback from that side that it’s either a consolidation or a termination of the agreement in 2017,” Bolton told Daige. “There’s no room for cooperatives, there’s no partnerships.”

Gabbard then said, “There’s no status quo.”

Mike Hotchkiss, who heads up engineering and planning for the county’s utility, says the county is just facing reality.

“With our county customers on the city system facing 60 percent increases in the near future, we feel that doing nothing is not an option,” Hotchkiss said.

Bolton has defended the view that Vero Beach needs to maintain an independent water and sewer system due to concerns about the city being overwhelmed with wet-weather discharge.

He has also said there are the public health and safety considerations of having redundant city and county systems to keep the sewage running in the right direction — away from customers’ homes.

The city’s water and sewer systems employ 82 full-time workers whose futures would be uncertain if the county took over serving residents currently served by the city. Six employees are already expected to lose their jobs due to mid-year budget cuts in April.

The county already has a customer service department, payment facilities, engineering and administration to serve the additional customers, according to county officials.

It has — or is planning to build — the capacity to accept wastewater and to provide drinking water and reuse water for irrigation to all the customers.

That means increased staffing requirements would be limited to meter reading and technical personnel to maintain the additional lines, pumps and lift stations.Another meeting of the appointed officials from Vero, the county and Indian River Shores takes place Thursday morning, at which time Bolton said he will try to gauge the direction and wishes of the county and how that relates to the proposed changes in the comp plan. Should the outcome of the meeting, in Bolton’s view, not indicate that the county’s aims for the consultant’s study are in “the best interests of the city” he will bring the matter back to the Vero council. Should Vero Beach’s leaders come away feeling that their utility is about to be stripped out from under them, Vero Beach’s participation in the joint process might be on borrowed time.

Meanwhile, Indian River Shores officials and customers were fully expecting to have at least the basic information required to move ahead toward a decision for the town — whose franchise expires in 2016 — by early summer. The prospects of that happening at this time seem dim at best, if the Shores is forced to rely on the joint process for answers.

“These people are just doing their job recommending to us a consultant,” said Shores Mayor Bill Kenyon. “Then we’ll decide whether we want to play the game or we get out of it.”

Vero Beach’s water and sewer system, which ended the 2008-09 fiscal year owing the city’s general fund $93,000, is again running in the red to the tune of $450,000. The overruns are partly due to the new $11 million deep-well injection plant and nearly $900,000 of capital improvement projects needed this year.

The county system, flush in operating cash, keeps looking like the fiscally safer option for customers wishing to have a well-managed operation providing water and sewer service.

While the city accuses the county of having a hidden plan, top city staffers including retiring Finance Director Steve Maillet have floated their own trial balloon — the idea that the city taxpayers would be “better off” if Vero Beach retreated into the city limits and focused its efforts on providing service only to city customers.

This plan, however, has no research or financial analysis behind it. Should Indian River Shores and the county pull their customers out in 2016 and 2017 respectively, the burden of financing the city’s water and sewer infrastructure would be borne by just theh remaining 60 percent of the current customers.

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