Shores officials slam utilities meeting as ‘light on substance’


Indian River Shores officials are getting frustrated with what they see as Vero’s lack of transparency about how much water-sewer rates will rise from mounting costs of the city’s planned wastewater treatment plant construction project.

A joint meeting last week of the Indian River Board of County Commissioners and the Vero Beach City Council with all the top staffers in attendance could have been the perfect venue to discuss the matter, but as the three Shores council members who watched the meeting pointed out, the massive project, now estimated to cost a quarter billion dollars including debt service, was barely mentioned.

“I was surprised that they have this huge, huge project that’s going to cost a zillion dollars and nobody even talked about it,” Shores Councilwoman Mary Alice Smith said.

“I just think it’s so un-transparent. The people might hear about this wastewater treatment plant, but they have no idea that they’re going to be paying for it, and I’m surprised that the county wasn’t more concerned about that,” Smith said. “I mean, they had zero discussion.”

Shores Mayor Brian Foley noted that no public comment was taken at the meeting, despite it being a rare occasion that the two elected boards were in the same room.

“I’m disappointed as you are that there wasn’t more detail in it,” Foley said, but he surmised that the meeting was, “by design, light on substance.”

Foley said he did a back-of-the-envelope calculation based upon the $250 million cost figure, including debt service and determined “it’s about $18,000 for every man, woman and child in the City of Vero Beach,” he said. “That doesn’t include demolition. That doesn’t include potential environmental remediation.”

“What I thought was interesting from our perspective being a customer of water and sewer from the City of Vero Beach was … a suggestion that they might raise the capacity of the water and sewer plant from 5 million gallons a day to 7 million gallons a day,” Shores Council member Bob Auwaerter said.

“There was no discussion of what the cost might be. The issues that might come up with that are, how do you allocate rates and capital costs and things like that?”

Auwaerter, who serves as the Shores’ representative on Vero’s Utilities Commission, said the city has been bypassing, or at least not utilizing, its advisory commission as intended to weigh in on these big-dollar decisions. “To be blunt, they’ve turned the Utilities Commission into a joke. We talk about stormwater and that’s the extent of it.

“It’s just extremely frustrating to me going to those meetings when there isn’t any discussion about numbers,” Auwaerter said.

Since, as Foley observed, “the city’s made a commitment that shovels will be in the ground in the summer of 2024,” he asked Auwaerter if the utilities advisory committee had seen anything concrete from the city regarding the bonding or financing of the project.

Auwaerter replied no, but said he felt Vero would need to finance it 100 percent, because the city continues to use utility revenues to pay for general government expenses.

“They never put any of the money aside that they’ve been taking out in profits,” Auwaerter said. “In fact, I looked at their budget and for the 2021-22 fiscal year their transfer in profit to the general fund was $1,031,000. For the 2023-24 proposed budget it’s $1,558,000. They continue to feed off the trough.”

Adding in the administrative charges allocated to the water-sewer utility for things like city hall operations, human resources, finance and purchasing, Auwaerter said nearly 14 percent of water-sewer revenue goes out of the utility into Vero’s general fund.

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