Reprinted from the Sarasota Herald Tribune
By J. DAVID McSWANE
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 12:22 a.m.
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SARASOTA – The Sarasota City Commission voted to lock city residents into a 30-year contract with Florida Power and Light late Monday night, ending months of tough negotiations with the utility company for more green energy benefits.
The commission passed the agreement, and a coupled renewable energy agreement, on a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Kelly Kirschner and Vice Mayor Fredd Atkins opposed.
At the center of the heated energy talks was the city’s stake in a nearly $5 million-a-year franchise fee, which the city pulls in through FPL charges to consumers — a revenue source the city cannot afford to drop during a recession and a leverage point some say FPL representatives have taken advantage of.
Over the course of tense negotiations with city staff — and an outside energy attorney who was paid $55,000 to consult — FPL agreed to some concessions, but would not agree to a shorter contract, which the commission sought earlier this year.
In an accompanying contract FPL representatives agreed, over the next three decades, to provide:
• Educational programs to inform residents about energy efficiency;
• Energy audits on city and consumer accounts;
• Home energy makeovers for 1,500 homes;
• Fifteen electric vehicle charging stations, to be replaced over time; and
• A longer-term promise to install a large-scale rooftop solar facility and LED street light pilot program.
Raye Dowling, area manager for FPL, lauded the “partnership” as the best deal the utility company had ever offered to a municipality. But the concessions did little to impress commissioners, who expressed doubts about the long-term promises.
“For a company this size, this is chump change,” said Atkins, who along with the mayor, led an at-times-dramatic offensive against FPL representatives Monday.
Under the contract, Sarasota effectively grants a 30-year monopoly for FPL, a company whose renewable energy profile is in stark contrast to the city’s aggressive green energy and sustainability goals. The company imports a vast majority of its fuel energy from out of state, and reports only 2 percent of its energy as coming from renewable sources.
Robert “Scheff” Wright, the Tallahassee energy attorney contracted by the city to help in negotiations, advised against locking Sarasota into a 30-year contract. By his calculations, FPL’s concessions would save the city roughly three-tenths of one percentage in energy costs.
That number, Kirschner said, was enough for him to oppose the FPL deal.
“I apologize to our citizens, and it’s an unfortunate thing,” he said as the commission approved the deal.
About 20 residents spoke emphatically against the contract, citing likely advancements in energy sources over the next three decades, in which the city will have little to no ability to partake. Members from the Argus Foundation and Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, of which FPL is a member, argued in support of the contract.
Commissioner Terry Turner spoke to the financial gridlock that handicapped the city since the beginning of negotiations as he cast his vote in favor of signing on with FPL.
“It would be wonderful if Sarasota could lead the way, but Sarasota is not an island.”
A last-minute amendment to the contract, approved on a 3-2 vote, will allow the city to invest some of the future proceeds from franchise fees into renewable energy investments.