VERO BEACH — The Vero Beach City Council voted late Tuesday evening to appoint long-time Public Works Director Monte Falls to serve as Interim City Manager when Jim Gabbard retires Oct. 15.
Falls, who said he is not interested in applying for the City Manager position, was named early on as one of a handful of qualified department heads who would fill the gap until the Vero Beach City Council can find a replacement for Gabbard. “I would do the best that I could for the benefit of the city, to do that until the council made a permanent position,” Falls said, when questioned about his willingness to step up.
The matter was nearly tabled until the Oct. 5 meeting, but Gabbard said he would rather begin the transition sooner than later, as there are many complex matters going on that he would need to bring the interim person up to speed on prior to his departure.
Over the past year, Gabbard has been embattled on many fronts, including the chronic rate issues with the city’s utilities, budget challenges and delicate labor negotiations with the Teamsters and the Police Benevolent Association, not to mention litigation involving no less than two sitting members of the city council.
Plans are to hire a search firm at a cost of $21,000 to recruit and evaluate qualified candidates for the job.
One other name that had been thrown out was Finance Director Steve Maillet, who had announced he was retiring in the spring but then extended his service through the budget season.
The last time the city conducted a wide search for a new City Manager was when Rex Taylor was forced to resign in 2003. Gabbard was promoted from within as he’d served for two decades as Police Chief.
About five years ago, Gabbard was appointed Interim City Manager when David Mekarsky was terminated by the City Council and Mayor Mary Beth McDonald. A few months later, Gabbard was hired into the job officially.
One of his first challenges was to complete the city’s hurricane recovery and to embark upon efforts to get the city out of the Florida Municipal Power Agency’s All Requirements Project, which had crippled ratepayers for years.
“I’m here 7 to 5 Monday through Friday,” Falls told Councilman Ken Daige, who asked if he would be “available” as Interim City Manager for the long days, weekend duties and after-hours matters that sometimes arise.
When probed about being available in the evening, Falls responded, “I go to bed at 8 o’clock,” a statement, which then became a joke as the meeting had run until about 10:30 p.m.
Gabbard currently earns $136,000 plus benefits and there is much pressure on the City Council to reduce the starting salary for the new City Manager in light of current budget restraints.
The city is facing a nearly 10 percent decrease in property tax dollars, reduced revenue sharing from the state and growing pension and benefit costs going forward.
Falls has the full support of the City Council, which voted 5-0 to place him in the temporary top post.
As Public Works Director, he has supervised several major projects for the city, including the Humiston Park renovations. Falls has also taken on extra duties in the area of employee benefits, as he spearheaded efforts to reform the city’s pension and health insurance plans over the past few months.
Falls also served on the now-defunct committee formed to investigate options for either consolidating water and sewer services with the county or forming some sort of cooperative alliance or utility authority, so he is versed in those issues as well.
In other matters, the City Council voted to keep the property tax rate the same for the upcoming year. The city’s rate of just under $1.94 per $1,000 of assessed property value will stay low because much of the cost of operating the city is paid for through transfers from the utility bills of customers inside and outside the city.
The sum of the direct transfers from the electric, water and sewer funds, plus monies used to support administrative personnel and costs, amounts to nearly $11 million per year.
Electric Utility Director John Lee also announced that electric base rates, called the “customer charge,” are going up, but that the power cost adjustment for the city’s electric customer will be going down as of Oct. 1 due to cheaper prices for fuel oil at the current time.
This will result in a net savings of about $3 for the customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours of power and about $10 for the customer who uses 2,500 kilowatt hours per month.
Lee said the power cost adjustment may go back up should fuel oil prices rise in the future.