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Citizens hold off on complaint, giving Vero five months to work on electric sale

VERO BEACH — A 2009 complaint with the Florida Public Service Commission claiming the City of Vero Beach Electric utility is an unregulated price monopoly has been tabled for five months to give the Vero Beach City Council a chance to take decisive action to sell the utility to Florida Power and Light.

The city has filed a Motion to Dismiss the complaint, which is still pending.

Utility activists Dr. Stephen Faherty and CPA Glenn Heran had filed the complaint asking the PSC to jusge whether or not Vero should be allowed to continue to serve the roughly 20,000 customers outside its city limits. Outside city customers make up 61 percent of Vero’s ratepayers and contribute roughly $4.5 million to the city’s general fund in direct and indirect transfers.

The complaint was on hold for about 15 months before being reactivated earlier this year. The PSC staff took up the complaint and requested 30-plus years of data from the city, including maps, customer counts and financial information. The next step was that the staff would set a schedule for the case to work its way through the PSC hearing process, which would include a ruling on the Motion to Dismiss.

On a conference call Tuesday, which was attended by Acting City Attorney Wayne Coment, Interim City Manager Monte Falls, Customer Service Manager John Lee, several PSC staffers, FP&L representatives, Faherty and Heran, former Councilman Ken Daige and two members of the media, the parties agreed to put the complain on ice until Sept. 15.

The City of Vero Beach is being represented by Tallahassee attorney Robert Scheffel Wright, whom the City Council voted last week to retain. Wright was also on the call, speaking on behalf of the city.

Martha Brown of the PSC, who has been leading the effort to gather data from the PSC for the past couple of months, suggested that action with the agency could halt temporarily now that “things are happening” with the sale.

Last week, FP&L sent Vero Beach a letter of intent offering to pay up to $100 million cash for the utility, to give all Vero customers low FP&L rates and to take over the electric employees for two years, to pay their pension liabilities and offer them opportunities with FP&L.

The City of Vero Beach has hired GAI Consultants for $248,000 to do an appraisal of the system and provide services related to evaluating the merit of the terms set forth in the letter of intent.

Brown confirmed that the PSC would not interfere in a sale of the Vero utility to FP&L, but would only review the terms of the sale if FP&L later came back and tried to recover any costs of purchasing the system through a rate increase to the power provider’s 4.5 million customers statewide.

On the call, attorney Wright appealed to the PSC that neither the city nor the complainants, by agreeing to hold off on the proceedings, would waive any rights with regard to the complaint.

“If we gear back up in September, they can assert whatever they want to and we can assert whatever we want to with respect to what are and are not legitimate, cognizable issues,” Wright said.

The PSC said they would document the on hold status with a letter.

According to Councilman Brian Heady, Acting City Attorney Wayne Coment quickly circulated a memo praising Wright for negotiating the stay for the city in having to defend against the complaint. Heady was the lone vote against retaining an attorney in the case, as he thought the complaint should be allowed to play out at the PSC.

After the Tuesday conference call, Heran said that it was not anything Wright said during the call that persuaded he and Faherty to give the city some time to move the sale to FP&L forward, but the possibility of being buried in motions, filings and other legal paperwork by a Tallahassee attorney who specializes in PSC matters.

Faherty and Heran to date have handled the complaint on their own and Heran said they do not have funding to seek legal representation to fight the city and its attorney.

FP&L is scheduled to meet with the Vero Beach City Council in public on May 2 to talk about the letter of intent.

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