Vero Beach city leaders against debating merits of electric utility with county

VERO BEACH – Members of the Vero Beach City Council and their top staff members will probably not be attending any joint meetings in the near future with the Board of County Commissioners to discuss the fate of the electric utility

The issue was broached at Tuesday’s council meeting, in response to a County Commission meeting last week, during which commissioners requested a joint meeting to discuss the city’s electric utility. Vero Beach officials prefer to wait until negotiations of a possible sale to Florida Power and Light generate some concrete numbers about the value of assets and property. Vero Beach City Councilman Brian Heady brought up a request — which City Manager Jim Gabbard had included in his matters — from the Board of County Commissioners to hold a workshop at which two models could be presented and debated.

One model would be Glenn Heran’s electric financial model that he says shows the city would be better off financially if it were to sell its electric utility to Florida Power and Light.

The other would be the city’s, which has yet to be developed and would, in theory, justify the city maintaining ownership and operation of its electric utility.

Heady also asked the council to place on its next agenda a request for the presentation of Heran’s model before the council. Mayor Kevin Sawnick requested that Heady have the item placed on the May 4 agenda with some backup documents describing the information presented in the model.

Heran has presented his model to the county’s utility advisory committee, the Board of County Commissioners and other elected officials. Commissioners recently declared that it is their responsibility to review the city’s utility because 61 percent of the city’s customers live outside the city’s limits – in either unincorporated county or Indian River Shores.

The bottom line of Heran’s model states that the county as a whole is losing $23 million to $30 million in money that ratepayers are paying to the city that they would not be paying if they had FP&L rates. Florida Power and Light’s rates are currently 34 percent lower than the city’s rates.

Sawnick requested the item be placed on the May 4 agenda for discussion, but the general consensus of top staff and most of the council was that the city would not want to show its hand about selling the utility with talks pending with FP&L. Acting Utility Director John Lee said he would only want to debate with “real” numbers, not the data in Heran’s model, which he called hypothetical until an offer is on the table from FP&L or another power company.

“We haven’t had anybody interested in buying this facility in at least five years,” Vice Mayor Sabe Abell said, in response to some questions from Stephen Faherty, a proponent of selling the utility, during public comment. “Nobody’s been knocking down our doorstep to buy the utility.”

Heady also asked that the city’s staff be engaged in responding to the data being put forth by Heran about the benefits of a potential sale of the electric utility to Florida Power and Light.

Councilman Tom White said that the city would need to bring in former Electric Utility Director R.B. Sloan and Boston consultant Sue Hersey to prepare the model and to represent the city at the county’s workshop.

“Is the county going to pay to have them here?” White asked. “If it’s not going to be done right, I don’t want to do it.”

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