Indian River Shores pulls out of utility consolidation efforts

INDIAN RIVER SHORES — The Town Council voted Thursday to exit a six-member committee formed to study the possible consolidation of the Vero, Indian River County and Indian River Shores water, wastewater and reuse water systems.

“The fact that we drop out of this committee doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot,” said Indian River Shores Mayor Bill Kenyon. “This is a dead dog committee.”

The committee was formed on Oct. 15 during a joint meeting of the three elected bodies, with officials from Fellsmere also present. The goal of the committee was to hire a consultant and come back to the entities with recommendations.

Over the past seven months, amid delays, miscommunication and often a deep divide in where members see the committee going, the efforts of the group have been rife with politics and territorial undertones.

Four options were on the table, including complete consolidation, possibly under an independent utility authority.

Other options ranged from the county taking over its residents on the South Beaches and on the mainland, the status quo with everyone keeping their current customers to some hybrid option where economies of scale could be recognized in just one or two areas by cooperating, say, just on wastewater treatment but not on potable water.

The City of Vero Beach has made it clear that it wants the status quo — for Vero Beach to continue serving not only city residents, but county and Shores residents as well — to remain a viable option.

County officials have cited compelling financial reasons to either consolidate services or for the county to terminate its franchise agreement with the city in 2017 and build the infrastructure required to service the South Beaches and mainland county customers with water and sewer.

Indian River Shores has been left in the middle of this feud, with the clock ticking away to Oct. 26, 2011, when the town must make a decision about who to contract with for utility services in 2016.

The vote came after three separate presentations about utilities.

First, activists Dr. Stephen Faherty and Glenn Heran presented a new financial model showing the implications for the town of staying on the Vero system.

Heran showed a current Indian River Shores utility bill and converted the charges to estimated county rates going forward to show — depending upon the customer’s usage and meter size — a savings ranging from 22 percent in the current year to 112 percent in future-year projections, should Vero Beach remain on track with increases approved by the Vero Beach City Council in 2009.

County Commission Chair Peter O’Bryan later spoke, answering questions about the county’s capacity to serve Indian River Shores. O’Bryan assured the council and residents watching that, should the Shores desire water and sewer service from the county, that it has excess capacity – even beyond the committed capacity to every developer who has paid impact fees for lots and communities stalled by the down economy.

O’Bryan tried to put in very simple terms the crux of the disagreement, which arose among committee members regarding a proposal by GAI to interview all the stakeholders prior to amassing much technical or financial data upon to make a recommendation.

“Basically it’s $40,000 to get everybody’s opinion again,” O’Bryan said. “The county’s point of view is we felt that was an unnecessary expense for the taxpayers.”

He added that the county still wanted to work within the scope of the consultant, but that the Board of County Commissioners would rather be asked to make a decision after presented with hard facts, not just asked to be given an opinion on a menu of choices based on feelings about what they’d like to see happen.

Indian River Shores council members asked O’Bryan to have the utility staff come back with a preliminary proposal of what it would cost to bring the town into the county system.

Former Mayor Tom Cadden, who has been charged with acting as the town’s official liaison on utility issues, presented next. Cadden chairs the committee, which the town voted to exit.

Cadden told the council that there had been a major rift over the scope of the first phase of a study to be conducted by GAI consultants and that he did not feel the committee could overcome that difference of opinion.

Cadden did not recommend the town spend any money going forward to study options that might only serve the aims of either Vero Beach or the county. Instead he proposed a workshop with experts focused on giving the Shores advice on where to purchase utilities after the franchise agreement expires.

“You need to know what you have in the ground and what it’s worth,” Cadden said. “The county can give you a proposal in 90 days, but I don’t think you should ask for that until we do our own engineering study.”

It is not expected that the county and Vero Beach will continue the committee’s efforts, since disagreements over the intended direction of the committee and its task had already brought the group to a standstill.

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