PSC delays ruling on Shores’ electric challenge

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — The Public Service Commission kicked the can down the road last week, instead of deciding whether Vero’s right to keep providing electric service to Indian River Shores residents after a franchise agreement expires should be examined and analyzed as the Shores hoped.

Had the Florida Public Service Commission rubber-stamped its staff’s recommendation denying Indian River Shores a full review of Vero Beach’s electric territory, Vero would have been in a stronger negotiating position when officials from the city, the Shores and Florida Power & Light meet July 26 to try to broker a sale of 3,000 Shores customers.

The outcome advocated by the PSC’s legal and technical staff advising the five-member state utility regulatory board would have left the Shores with few options – one being a longshot appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

City Manager Jim O’Connor said Monday he’s still confident the staff’s recommendation will prevail. “The PSC staff’s position is very clear, and that remains the city’s position as well,” O’Connor said.

But instead of allowing the agenda item to go forward as scheduled last week in a Tallahassee hearing room, PSC Chairman Julie Imanuel Brown requested the matter be deferred until Sept. 13.

During previous proceedings, Brown had chastised the warring parties for using PSC staff time and not being able to work out a solution locally. Last week, she again encouraged Vero and the Shores to hammer out some kind of compromise or deal. From the dais, Brown implored the parties, “Please use this time wisely to foster an amicable and productive dialogue among all of you.”

A public records request designed to unearth any documents showing the possible motivation for pulling the agenda item resulted only in a procedural form submitted by Brown which listed a hand-written reason, “Additional time needed for review.” It is unknown whether any of the other commissioners also had concerns about the item, as it was deferred with no discussion and no vote during the July 7 public hearing.

Sources in Tallahassee who follow PSC proceedings speculate the delay came because the PSC staff came dangerously close to interpreting Florida’s Constitution in regard to the disputed matters, which would exceed the Commission’s authority.

The Commission has hotly defended Vero’s claims to a permanent, unchallengeable service territory, as well as the agency’s own “exclusive and superior power” to grant electric service territories. But the Town argues that the Shores has rights under state law that bestow upon it a greater power – power to keep another municipality from encroaching over its borders.

Shores’ attorneys took that question to the Circuit Court, but the PSC’s staff attorney convinced Judge Cynthia Cox that the appropriate place for the question was back in Tallahassee in the regulators’ chambers.

Shores officials say that they “fundamentally disagree” with the staff urging Commissioners to not permit a full review of Vero’s territory, whereby utility customers would be permitted to comment. Already, more than 65 Shores residents have filed written comments with commissioners emphasizing their desire to be served not by Vero, but instead by FPL like their neighbors in the northern 20 percent of the Town already on FPL’s system.

During the Sept. 26 session, FPL attorneys and executives will try to bridge the chasm between the $13.6 million FPL has offered for the Shores customers and the $42.4 million “make whole” price Vero’s legal and consulting team has proffered.

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