Editor’s note: InsideVero invited all six candidates competing for three positions on the Vero Beach city council to respond in writing to a questionnaire addressing important issues facing the City of Vero Beach. Candidates Sharon Gorry, Randy Old and Tony Young’s responses are presented below. Candidates Lange Sykes and Norman Wells initially responded by email to our invitation indicating they would participate. They later declined to do so. Candidate Laura Moss did not reply to numerous invitations sent to her by email. All email addressed used were ones provided by the candidates to the City Clerk’s office.
- What do you consider to be the three most important issues facing the City of Vero Beach? In some detail, please explain how you, as a member of the City Council, would address those issues?
Sharon Gorry: In the past several years the City Council has initiated 5 Electric rate cuts with a sixth coming Oct. 15, 2016. These reductions total $14.87 per 1,000 KWH. The cuts would have been larger, had COVB not had to spend so much defending itself. Our rates are higher than we would like, but near median for the state. Of that, 60% of it purchased power. By 2023, purchased power cost should decrease dramatically as the expenses for power from Orlando Public Utilities will be purchased at market, and in 2019 one of the three FMPA contracts (Stanton I plant of which we own a percentage) will be fully paid with residual for maintenance to pay. Further, the already low Utility debt (by Utility Industry Standards), will be significantly reduced ($15M in 2019 and paid off in 2022). Education of our rate payers is crucial, giving facts, not sound bites of incorrect information that is being spread throughout the media.
The Indian River Lagoon is a primary focus. Through the COVB efforts to make the STEP system available to all homes that still rely on Septic Tanks, progress is being made to contain any effluent that might leech into the Lagoon. As well, a fertilizer ban has been put in place. A study is underway to look at street run-off into the Lagoon. Further, a trial is being done on an Aeration system that appears to dissipate the muck and enhance the growth of sea grasses, thus starting to provide a habitat for all of our precious lagoon creatures.
The future of the City of Vero Beach is a huge concern, maintaining limits on building heights, maintaining our parks, roads, beaches, services, ambiance and all that keeps us here is easily accomplished by our dedicated employees. The concern is….keeping it that way!
Randy Old: Managing Vero Electric in a way that calms our community, establishing a Storm Water Utility and taking other measures to protect the lagoon, and carefully managing our finances.
Tony Young: Cleaning the lagoon, stopping the train and lowering our utility bills are the three most important issues facing the City of Vero Beach. I intend to use my leadership experience to take these matters head-on and work with local residents and county, state, and federal legislators to address all three of these issues. We also need to be good neighbors with our surrounding municipalities working with them regarding the train and the lagoon. These are regional issues.
- What is your vision for the property currently occupied by the “Big Blue” power plant, the former postal annex, and eventually, the water treatment facility?
Sharon Gorry: These properties are owned by the taxpayers of the City of Vero Beach and ultimately it will be their decision. In the interim, once the property currently occupied by “Big Blue” is cleared and leveled, it will be available to the public. Clearly its use will dictate its future. A high school student asked me recently if an Amphitheatre and Boardwalk could be there for concerts. I like that idea. As well, I would like to explore an Aquarium/Museum in an effort to preserve the “Big Blue” building…it is so a part of our history.
As for the other two properties, I don’t see the Waste Water Treatment Plant property being vacated for a number of years, until the current debt is paid. The former Postal Annex is also an issue. The future utilization of the three assets must be addressed together – holistically – not separately….again, it will be up to the taxpayers of the City of Vero Beach.
Randy Old: The piece of land is valuable, one of the last large pieces on the lagoon that belongs to the city, it should be developed wisely, with a mixed use so it earns money for the city.
Tony Young: The water treatment plant should not be moved unless the cost could be justified. Any move should be based upon a deliberate analysis that considers the impacts, costs, and necessity after consultation with a body of associated professionals and vested parties. The use of the property from the power plant and the others should be examined in a deliberate fashion. Regarding the power plant, the City of Vero Beach has had multiple workshops with citizen input. That is the best way to determine what should be done with the property.
- Are you in favor of eventually relocating the water treatment facility from its current site along the Lagoon to property adjacent to the airport? If so, what is your opinion on how this move should be funded?
Sharon Gorry: I am not in favor of relocating the Waste Water Treatment Plant at this time because the debt must be paid down so financing of new debt is tenable. The facility has approximately 30 years or more of useful life remaining. Perhaps in 5 or 6 years a study can be done to assess the feasibility then since most would be paid down. The cost of moving it is in the $35M range.
Randy Old: I think that the water treatment facility should not be on the waterfront, but I do not think it should be moved until the debt is paid off, and the city has replaced its aging pipeline infrastructure, as there seems to be no major gain in technology building a new plant now. Moving it now at an estimated cost of $30 million, would strap the city with debt so it would not be able to replace its infrastructure, which will soon begin to fail. Moving it, but later, is my choice.
Tony Young: As I stated in the last question, the cost needs to be justified. The latest estimate to move the plant was somewhere in the $30 million range. This needs to be primarily a dollars and cents decision. At this point it doesn’t seem to be a wise use of taxpayer dollar.
- Do you agree with the generally held view that the hybrid septic system is the most cost effective way to reduce the level of pollutants entering the Indian River Lagoon? If so, how would you propose funding this system?
Sharon Gorry: Mr. Bolton, Director of our Water / Sewer Enterprise researched for years to find a system that was cost effective and served the purposes required for a waterfront community that still had septic systems. I do agree with the STEP system as one way to contribute to the well being of our lagoon. Presently, the initial infrastructure for the system is being installed with the help of grants. For residents that access that infrastructure, no interest loans are being made available for a year from notification that access is available to them.
Randy Old: I like the STEP system as an effective alternative to moving everyone to our sewer system. The city is funding the system’s infrastructure, that is, plastic pipes along each street, and each customer is responsible to hook up their system and adapt the septic tank, with a discount for those who sign up early. It is going well, the city has a backlog of people wanting to sign up. The city is also reducing the use of fertilizers and writing a storm water utility, so there is three-pronged approach being undertaken to protect the lagoon aimed at three of the known pollutant sources.: septic, storm water and fertilizer.
Tony Young: Yes, I think the problems in our lagoon are multi-faceted, but septic waste is certainly one of the major contributors. The STEP systems are popular amongst the residents that have them and they keep pollution out of the lagoon without their streets being torn up. The City has been able to reduce the costs associated with these system installations. We should sustain the incentives being used now to encourage more households to convert.
- The current City Council has aggressively enforced the City’s ordinances prohibiting the operation of short term, so-called vacation rentals in residential areas. Would you continue this policy of enforcement, or would you take a different approach, and what is your view on short-term rentals of less than 30 days? Do you believe they can be a detriment to neighborhoods, or do you see it otherwise?
Sharon Gorry: I wholly agree with the City’s present position on short term rentals in residential areas and would continue to enforce this policy. I do believe they can be a detriment to neighborhoods.
Randy Old: I like the policy, there was a short-term rental on our street, and it caused no end of issues. They have no place in residential neighborhoods.
Tony Young: We live in a coastal paradise and I completely appreciate why people would want to come and visit. However, the residents of Vero Beach should be able to live comfortably in their homes without the commission of a new neighbor every week. These guests may or may not have the same concern for our community that we do. I favor a 30-day rule for rentals with applicable zoning. My solution is to work with the Chamber of Commerce to propose a way to provide lodging in places that are receptive to the idea.
- What do you think the City of Vero Beach can and should do to stop All Aboard Florida, or to mitigate the impact of the trains, should they be approved?
Sharon Gorry: All Aboard Florida appears to be a “Sleeping Dragon” that when awoken will spit fire like we have never seen. While I continue to hope we will not be impacted, I feel we should begin to explore ways to protect the safety of our citizens and their property values. The cost of that mitigation should not fall on our shoulders, but on AAF or Bright Line – whatever they are calling themselves now.
Randy Old: There is tremendous political pressure to complete the AAF project, but there is considerable resistance from the financial community to purchase its debt, and there is a growing awareness that AAF bypassed many regulations which protect historic places, and citizens’ safety. Keeping the pressure on even if it does not stop the train, will result in the process adhering more to the rules, and keeping Vero safer. The Vero Man Site is on both sides and under the existing rail bed, so that insuring that AAF adheres to the laws set up protect important sites is fundamental to the site’s preservation.
Tony Young: We need to continue pressuring AAF and our local, state, and federal legislators. They need to know the significant impact upon our neighborhoods that will result if this train comes through. There has been incredible work done by many wonderful residents fighting this project, and they should be commended. While we’re fighting to keep this train out we need to be developing a plan to mitigate the consequences if we are not successful.
- Changes have already been approved to narrow the westbound twin pairs to make downtown more pedestrian friendly. What is your position on these proposed changes?
Sharon Gorry: The Rt. 60 / 20th St. corridor is a State road and subject to FDOT scheduling. Our downtown businesses are in favor of more parking and lower speed limits. I, as well, am in favor of this change.
Randy Old: I like the proposed changes, but I think we should wait to make the changes when the road is due to be repaved in a couple of years. It would make the changes affordable.
Tony Young: Downtown Vero Beach has become a very popular place recently and there has been an influx of pedestrian action. It’s incredibly important that we keep our residents and guests safe. My position on the narrowing of the Twin Pairs is that we should do whatever we must to ensure their safety. If that includes narrowing the Twin Pairs, lowering the speed limit, or any other measures, we should at the very least look at ways to address the concern.
- Apart from the electric issues, some have argued the City of Vero Beach should not continue to operate its other enterprise funds, such as the water and sewer utility, the solid waste utility and the marina. What is your view on the City’s ownership of these enterprise funds?
Sharon Gorry: The City of Vero Beach has been described as unique in that it is a full service city. The solid Waste Utility is extremely efficient with twice a week service and side yard pick up for our seniors as well as being debt free. The Water and Sewer Utility maintains reserves, provides excellent service at a lower rate than the county and the Marina’s patrons from out of state refer to Vero as Velcro Beach because of the services the City offers that keeps them coming back. We are unique and should continue to operate them, but only so long as they are efficient and cost effective. Further, the Vero Beach Regional Airport is the sixth busiest in Florida. The recent addition of Elite Airlines has been hugely successful and provides 4 flights per week to Newark, NJ and/or Bar Harbor, ME.
Randy Old: I think we should keep the enterprise units. We need learn to manage them well as they are financially about 6 times the size of our city, are a major source of income, and provide valuable services to our community.
Tony Young: The enterprise funds are actually a huge asset for the City of Vero Beach. For instance, our Water and Sewer department is incredibly efficient and we actually have lower rates than the County. The enterprises produce a lot of revenue for the City of Vero Beach, and that’s what helps keep our taxes low. Every resident in the City should be happy that we have these enterprises. I know I am.
- The proposed sale of Vero Electric has been a political issue for nearly a decade. With the Orlando Utility Commission’s having withdrawn from the deal, do you believe that the specific purchase and sale agreement between the City and Florida Power & Light signed in 2013 and approved by voters cannot now be executed? If you believe that agreement is still valid, please explain what you would do as a member of the Vero Beach City Council to see that the agreement is executed before it expires on Dec. 31, of this year?
Sharon Gorry: The sales contract the City has with Florida Power and Light that expires the end of this year is not currently executable for a number of reasons, primarily the FMPA Purchase Power Contracts, where try as hard as our Council and staff have, no way to exit has been found. I see nothing Council could have done, or can do to change this situation by year end. Even if this were not true, so much has changed the contract would need an extensive and expensive rewrite. Examples are, there are now 1,000 more customers and $7.7M for upgrades has been made since 1/1/14 (and are continuing) to the Utility’s infrastructure, the plant and the lease/tear-down clauses are no longer applicable, lease needs at the airport have changed, there are fewer employees and different Pension and benefit obligations, and on and on.
Randy Old: I think the agreement is valid, but I think the chances of it being executed are slight, as no buyer has come forward willing or able to meet the qualifications necessary to close.
Tony Young: We have a contract with FPL right now to sell the Utility, but contractual obligations to the FMPA have prevented a sale. There will be candidates that will promise they’ll vote for a sale, but that’s already happened and we still can’t get to the closing of the deal. All of this needs to be figured out by FPL, the FMPA, and the lawmakers in Tallahassee. The City Council has done their part to sell the utility. The most important factor is to ensure the fiscal security for every resident in the City of Vero Beach.
- If you believe the current agreement will expire Dec. 31, 2016 unexecuted, what steps do you think the City Council can take to get the sale back on track? Specifically, how would you see resolving the bond covenants, and contingent liability issues, and what qualifying entity do you think might be willing and able to take the OUC’s place in assuming Vero Beach’s position in the Florida Municipal Power Agency power support contracts, and power supply agreements? If you do not believe these issues can and should be resolved contractually, how would you see getting around them?
Sharon Gorry: I do believe it will expire the end of this year because the FMPA contracts are out of the money by a growing margin, so I don’t see any other Municipality assuming them and the resulting loss versus buying inexpensive power at market rates. So it appears that the solution Council has supported through Legislation is the only possible resolution.
Randy Old: I think the best possible buyer would be one of the FMPA municipalities as they would be approved by FMPA, they could assume the bonds and they would be familiar with FMPA. We have offered it for sale, and no one has come forward, and to get it done we need a buyer. First finding a buyer, and then addressing each issue is the path I would suggest.
Tony Young: As described before, this issue is much bigger than what the City Council can do. If the agreement expires, we should try to find another buyer that is able to take on the liabilities. In the absence of a buyer, we need to continue to work with the FMPA and the OUC to lower our rates as we’ve done in the last few years.
- Regarding the proposed sale of Vero Electric’s customer base and electric utility infrastructure within the Town of Indian River Shores to FPL, do you agree with the City Council’s 3-2 decision not to accept FPL’s $30 million offer, but to instead agree to consider an offer at $47 million? If you would agree to this so-called partial sale for less than $47 million, how would you propose to protect the taxpayers of Vero Beach and the remaining customers of Vero Electric from paying higher taxes and electric rates as a result of the sale?
Sharon Gorry: I do agree with the City Council’s 3-2 decision not to accept FPL’s $30 million offer. I believe all ratepayers should be treated equally; selling for less than $47M would increase rates for the remaining customers and devalue the worth of the remaining system. Five experts best opinion was that $47 M would keep the remaining customers and tax payers whole, and I accept their estimate realizing no estimate can project the future. Still, in the interest of harmony with another municipality, we should be willing to sell at the experts estimate.
Randy Old: I voted against the sale for $30 million and for the $47 million sale, because anything less than $47 million would hurt our tax payer and ratepayers, and I do not see any other way of protecting the citizens if it were sold for less.
Tony Young: Yes, I agree with how the City Council voted on the partial sale issue and the reason why is exactly what you stated. City Council members need to have the interests of all the customers of Vero Beach Electric as their priority. Every vote I make on the City Council will be in the best interest of the residents of Vero Beach.