Kudos to city staff for meeting all challenges

Vero Beach City Hall [Photo: Kaila Jones]

It’s too easy to criticize Vero Beach officials for how long it takes to get things done – especially big things.

Heck, I’ve done it myself, writing more than once that the city government too often “moves at the speed of erosion.”

But while we sometimes get frustrated waiting to see progress, we need to make sure we don’t blame the wrong people.

It’s not the city staff’s fault.

If anything, we might want to take a moment to appreciate the vast amounts of important work being done by an undermanned city staff that has been asked to juggle several major projects at what has become a transformational time in Vero Beach’s history.

Among those projects, of course, is the much-anticipated development of the Three Corners property into a waterfront dining, retail, social and recreational hub at the west end of the 17th Street Bridge.

No project in Vero Beach’s recent history can match the immense impact the Three Corners development, if done correctly, will have on the future of our community.

Now throw in the accompanying relocation of the city’s wastewater-treatment plant from the banks of the Indian River Lagoon to the grounds of the Vero Beach Regional Airport – a move crucial to the Three Corners’ success – and the planned three-phase renovation and expansion of the municipal marina.

The City Council boldly identified those three face-changing projects as priorities, then told the city manager, attorney, planning director, finance director and other department heads to make it happen.

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the staff meeting.

Led by newcomer John Carroll, three members of the City Council in late 2022 demanded the resurrection of the wrongheaded and oft-rejected Twin Pairs lane-reduction proposal, which they claimed was needed to revitalize the city’s downtown area.

Just like that, city staffers found two more major projects on their plate – the Twin Pairs and downtown revitalization – both of which required hiring consultants, conducting studies and countless hours of extra in-house work.

All of this was done as the city’s utilities director was working on the planned construction of a trans-lagoon pipeline needed to pump up to 4 million gallons per day of treated stormwater from the Main Relief Canal on the mainland to John’s Island, where it will be used for irrigation.

That project required not only the pipeline’s design, which was completed last year, but also the filing of applications for permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the securing approval from the county for access to an easement in the Gifford area.

And there are others.

“The list goes on and on,” City Manager Monte Falls said. “I can give you examples from almost every department. They’re all dealing with things that take time, tasks they’re being asked perform in addition to their normal, every-day duties. But they’re getting the job done.

“Sometimes, there are the delays for reasons beyond our control, but we’re doing the work and getting it done.”

As this week began, in fact, only the Three Corners project was behind schedule, but by only 30 days, and that was because Falls encountered difficulty in hiring a project manager to oversee the operation.

Council members also extended, from Dec. 15 to Feb. 1, the deadline for developers to submit their proposals for the Three Corners site, but only after Project Manager Peter Polk assured them there was enough time built into the schedule to not cause any delay in the start of construction in May 2026.

To be so close to on-schedule with a project of such magnitude is commendable, given the increasing demands some council members continue to place on the staff and challenges of proceeding with so many major undertakings at the same time.

Actually, it’s amazing, when you consider that the staff is operating with nearly 80 fewer positions than were on the city’s payroll 15 years ago, before budget cuts made in response to the Great Recession slashed the total number from 412 in 2009 – not including 119 at the now-defunct electric utility – to 334 now. Only 326 of those jobs, however, are currently filled.

The Public Works Department absorbed most of the recession-driven cuts, and it’s still down 30 positions from where it was 2009, when it employed 121 people. The water-and-sewer utility is down 10 positions.

The Vero Beach Police Department, with 79 employees, now has one more position than it did in 2009, but that’s after the City Council last summer approved a 5.1 percent budget increase for the 2023-24 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The city’s new $33 million budget included funding for five new police department jobs – four sworn officers and one civilian employee – as well as two new positions in the Finance Department and one in the overtaxed Planning Department.

“I’m not criticizing the decisions that were made, because we did what needed to be done in tough economic times,” Falls said of the staff reductions made in 2009. “But there are consequences to those actions, and we’re still feeling those consequences.”

Falls said the workforce shortages are particularly noticeable in Public Works, which is down a dozen positions that would be assigned to the crews that maintain and landscape city properties.

“That’s at least three maintenance crews,” he said. “We get complaints about how things look, and we respond the best we can. But imagine how much more mowing, trimming and mulching you’d get done with three more crews.”

We can see the effects of the staff shortages there.

What we can’t see are the man-made miracles being performed almost weekly by City Planning Director Jason Jeffries, who, until recently operated with a staff of only four, including himself.

His department is playing a leading role in all three of the City Council’s priority projects. In addition, it was dragged into the Twin Pairs debacle – which, mercifully, ended with yet-another rejection of a proposed lane reduction – and is now wrestling with the creation of a master plan for the revitalization of Downtown Vero.

“We’ve now added a fifth person, but they’ve had a normal workload that’s as much as four people can do, and we keep adding more,” Falls said. “Look at all the studies the council has asked them to do.”

Meanwhile, thousands of newcomers have moved into the county the past three years, and they continue to pour into Vero Beach, using the city’s infrastructure and amenities.

That growth, and the demands for services that accompany it, also puts a strain on the city’s limited staff. “I think the staff is handling all of this in a professional and exemplary manner,” Vero Beach Mayor John Cotugno said. “We’ve asked a lot of these people, and their work product is proof of their effort.”

It’s an extraordinary effort, to be sure, and it starts at the top.

Falls said he arrives at his office at 6:15 a.m. every day and, despite plans to leave at 4:30 p.m., he’s usually still there at 5:30 p.m. “I’m like a fireman, except I don’t get 24 hours on and 48 off,” Falls said. “I have a schedule for each day, but things come up that need immediate attention. That’s what it takes to do this job.”

Any praise or credit he receives, though, he shares with what he calls his “phenomenal staff” and “very dedicated department heads,” whom he said not only do a “fabulous job” in their offices but also are eager to go beyond their usual duties.

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