Utility workshop attempts to find common ground on water-sewer issues

INDIAN RIVER SHORES — A roomful of staff, consultants, attorneys and elected officials showed up Wednesday to discuss a potential $90 million deal to provide water and sewer services to the Town of Indian River Shores for the next 30 years.

By the tone of the rhetoric, it’s clear that this scuffle over who is going to pipe utilities to Indian River Shores going forward is turning into one of those epic battles between the County and Vero Beach.

With the Shores caught in the middle and a high-paid consultant trying to explain away dubious invoices and entanglements, the nearly three-hour meeting did not settle many questions, but it raised several. Getting everyone together in one room was an attempt to at least understand the divergent positions.

The meeting was held to review proposals sent on Sept. 13 by GAI Consultants to the City of Vero Beach and to Indian River County Utilities and responses gleaned from those proposals.

“I hope, when we look back on this five years from now, that we say this meeting is where the process got on track,” said County Attorney Alan Polackwich.

Polackwich was present, along with City Attorney Charles Vitunac, because the county put forth information to support the premise that it — as a bidder on the job of serving the Shores with water, sewer and reuse water, was not placed on an “level playing field” with the City of Vero Beach.

The county claims the Shores’ consultant, GAI, sent the county a proposal so riddled with legal quandaries and impossible deadlines that it could not even respond.

The proposal as written would have required the county to purchase the Town’s assets, purchase Vero’s assets in the Town and be ready to service the Town by Jan. 31, 2011, not withstanding the fact that Vero Beach still has a franchise to serve the Town until Nov. 1, 2016.

“We are surprised by this date,” said Commission Chairman Bob Solari, who added that it would be practically impossible to execute the contract and perform those conditions in that short a turnaround time.

Solari directly connects the problems with the proposal sent to the county to the fact that GAI is working for both Vero Beach and Indian River Shores.

“We certainly do see it as a conflict of interest,” Solari said. “In any event, by any standard that I grew up with in New York and have come to understand in Florida, in no way you can say this is in any way a level playing field.”

GAI, Vero Beach and Indian River Shores explained the arrangement by saying that it was a natural extension of the three-way utility talks that broke up earlier this year.

The county countered, saying that the three-way talks were about consolidation and the work GAI is doing for Vero and the Shores is about a specific franchise and asset purchase deal, which the county argues is a distinct project.

“One of my personal concerns is still with the apparent conflict of interest with the consultant,” said Commissioner Peter O’Bryan.

“There’s a lot of smoke, from my point of view and when there’s that much smoke, something doesn’t feel right,” O’Bryan said.

No action was taken, but the Town will continue to tweak the propsals and suggestions were offered that, since GAI is working for both the Town and Vero, that the Shores should enter into a formal Request for Proposal process to ensure both bids are treated equally.

“There’s nothing in my life that says I have a bias toward either side,” said Indian River Shores Mayor Bill Kenyon. “I have to get the best deal for my people.”

The only thing some members of the three delegations could agree upon is that the issue of consolidation between Vero Beach and the County be ironed out as soon as possible, given that all four new Vero Council members say they want to look at joining forces with the county.

Vero Mayor Jay Kramer told those present that he would see that the item got placed on an upcoming agenda and got some serious attention at the city.

Vice Mayor Pilar Turner, who was also present at the meeting, has requested on the Nov. 16 city council agenda 10 years of financial analysis on the water and sewer utilities.

Interim City Manager Monte Falls said that, should the investigation of consolidation options put the Shores under an undo time constraint to make a decision on its franchise, which expires on Oct. 31, 2016, and requires a five-year notification in 2011, that he would recommend the city give the Shores a little more time to “make an educated decision.”

At the conclusion of the discussion, GAI Principal Engineer Gerald Hartman was still advising the Town to sign on with the proposal with the City of Vero Beach.

“This does not stop regionalization at all, it’s what’s best for the Town now,” he said. “The city and the county can still do a regional situation.”

“You can say that to the city, we want you to consider the consolidation option,” Hartman added. “You can say that, that’s a very positive statement.”

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