By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
SOUTH DAYTONA - The public wants a say on whether the city council should take over electric service from Florida Power & Light. Now they have the chance to vote on the issue in November.
Sixty-two percent of voters who turned out to the polls on Aug. 14 approved Referendum 1, which amends the city charter to require a public vote before the city establishes a municipal-run electric utility.
"The public has made it clear they want to weigh in on the electrical system," City Manager Joseph Yarbrough said. "The city is going to do everything possible to accommodate that opportunity."
On Monday, the city council finalized those accommodations at a special meeting where city leaders unanimously approved language for a referendum on the $12.1 million utility acquisition on Nov. 6, the day of the general election.
The ballot language states a municipal electric utility would be profitable while meeting FPL's rates and revenue would be reinvested back into the city with no new taxes, and the city would have control of electric rates and services. It also acknowledges city leaders have invested "substantial funds" - specifically $2.3 million in consultant and attorney fees, Mr. Yarbrough said - since the fight with FPL over the utility began in 2007.
A primary concern among council members was how that money would be recovered if the city does not buy the electric system. The $2.3 million figure was included in an initial draft of the ballot language but removed at the request of some citizens who commented at the special meeting that the $2.3 million figure distracts from the real issue - whether the public wants the city to invest $12.1 million in a city-run electric service.
"We're voting about whether we want to buy a system or not," said Rosemary Iocco, vice chairwoman of the FPL-funded political action committee Take Back Our Power, which fought to get the Aug. 14 referendum on the ballot. "It shouldn't be, we're going to lose all this money and you should vote yes."
Mayor George Locke encouraged citizens to look at both sides of the issue before casting a vote for or against buying the electric utility.
"It's important that everybody really thinks about the positive sides about this (purchase) as well as the negative sides ... and make up their own minds," he said.
Councilman Ralph Schoenherr, the lone voice on the council opposed to the purchase, suggested a civil debate take place before the Nov. 6 vote to educate the voting public on the facts of the issue.
Supporters of the approved charter amendment felt they should have a say in a utility purchase because of the cost involved and uncertainty over whether the city can operate an electric system more efficiently and inexpensively than FPL. Opponents believe a large corporation such as FPL should not influence city business.
While citizens had the right to vote on renewing FPL's franchise agreement in 1949 and 1978, the public also voted in 1982 to delegate future decisions regarding FPL's franchise to the city council. When the contract came up for renewal in 2007, council members hesitated to sign because it meant giving up valuable purchase language that would be lost forever if signed, leading them to research the feasibility of buying the utility. Under the previous city charter, council members voted 4-1 in favor of buying FPL's assets.
Pam Rausch, FPL's vice president of external affairs and development, said the results of the referendum showed the citizens sent a "very clear message" that they deserve a voice in the purchase decision.
"Taking the responsibility for such an essential service is an important decision," she said. "This will affect citizens for decades."
"... We believe it would be in our customers' best interests to enter into a franchise to continue with us, but it will be up to the customers to decide that. Our goal has really been to provide all of our customers with the lowest bill in the state and the highest (service) reliability."
Pat Mozden, chairwoman of Empowering South Daytona's Future, a political action committee that supports the city buying FPL's assets, said she was disappointed by the outcome of the Aug. 14 referendum, but did not regret the work she and her fellow volunteers put in to promote their support of the city's purchase decision.
"We knew the odds were against us," she said, given the thousands of dollars in funding FPL gave to Take Back Our Power. "It's really hard to compete with that large of an operation."
Despite the controversy over whether or not the city should be involved in the electric business, only 2,941 of the city's 7,613 registered voters cast votes in the referendum, according to preliminary election results. Ms. Mozden said it's possible some people didn't turn out for the vote because they don't have the time to understand the issue enough to reach an informed decision.
"This is not an issue that boils down to a simple bumper sticker or phrase," she said.
Raymond Lawrence, chairman of Take Back Our Power, said he was pleased with the outcome, as it meets his committee's primary goal to enable the public to vote on the electric utility purchase.
"I'm glad the people voted to get their rights back to vote on the issue," Mr. Lawrence said.
He said he is unsure whether Take Back Our Power would be involved in campaigning leading up to the referendum on the utility purchase, but predicted the divisions in the community over the future of the city's electric service will deepen in the weeks before the vote is held.
"As nasty as the first round was," he said, "I'm sure the next round could be even worse."