Miami-Dade County

Only in Miami-Dade do voters have the power to lower FPL bills. But will they?

El Nuevo Herald 2015 file photo

Sometime during the next two years, Miami-Dade leaders need to ask voters to renew a fee that adds about 3 percent to hundreds of thousands of electric bills across the county and delivers about $26 million a year to the government.

Florida Power & Light collects a “franchise fee” for cities and counties across the state, and the for-profit utility turns over the money to local governments as a pass-through tax. The money generally goes into the general coffers of local governments, paying for police, parks and other core services. While all of FPL’s other franchise agreements in Florida can be approved by city councils and county commissions, Miami-Dade’s charter contains a unique rule: Voters must approve the agreement by referendum.

The last time that happened was in 1990, and Miami-Dade voters overwhelmingly endorsed keeping the extra fee on electric bills. That 30-year agreement comes up for renewal during heightened public concern over climate change and scrutiny over FPL’s efforts to have customers pay for fracking outside of Florida and impose solar-energy limits in the state.

“FPL is going to spend millions and millions. We all know that,” said Joe Martinez, a Miami-Dade commissioner. “But I think it will be tough for it to pass.”

Already, a coalition of liberal groups is urging the county to impose anti-poverty and environmental requirements on FPL as part of a new franchise agreement, which allows the utility to build poles and substations on county land outside of city limits.

It’s not entirely clear what would happen if voters rejected the franchise free. “We’re talking about what that could possibly look like,” said Jennifer Moon, the Miami-Dade budget chief overseeing negotiations with FPL on the agreement renewal. “The truth is, state law supersedes these agreements and gives them access to the right of way. They don’t have franchise agreements in every county.”

An FPL spokeswoman, Alys Daly, said the utility would continue operating without the agreement, emphasizing that the fee has nothing to do with the costs of providing electricity. “We’d still continue to serve,” she said.

While FPL customers across Miami-Dade pay a franchise fee through various city agreements, the county’s deal mainly governs electric bills on properties in the “unincorporated” areas that sit outside of municipal limits. The county deal with FPL also applies to cities formed after the 1990 agreement was adopted, including Doral, Miami Gardens and Miami Lakes.

Though the franchise agreement only covers a portion of FPL’s Miami-Dade customers, the county charter requires a countywide vote to renew the deal. That could happen during the 2018 election cycle, or Miami-Dade commissioners could schedule a special vote, when turnout would almost certainly be lower.

The county franchise deal requires FPL to pay Miami-Dade an amount equivalent to 6 percent of its revenue from customers covered by the agreement, minus whatever the utility pays in taxes on property and equipment. With the utility the county’s top payer of property taxes, the deduction lowers the fee to between 3 and 4 percent of an electric bill, Moon said.

She said Miami-Dade wants to rewrite the current FPL deal to allow the county to produce solar energy and distribute it to facilities across the government. “We want more green initiatives,” she said. “We’d like to see more renewable energy.”

With countywide support needed, some FPL critics see the franchise agreement as an opportunity to win major concessions from the utility in Florida’s most populous county. Last week, the Miami Climate Alliance — a coalition of liberal groups that includes the Miami Democratic Issues Committee, Catalyst Miami, Tropical Audubon Society and New Florida Majority — delivered a letter to county Mayor Carlos Gimenez laying out provisions they want in a new franchise deal.

Those include: banning FPL from cutting off electricity during extremely hot days or after business hours, when a quick resumption of service isn’t possible; producing all of the unincorporated area’s electricity by wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2030; and more subsidies to help low-income residents reduce energy consumption.

“At the end of the day, the county wants money from the franchise agreement,” said Zelalem Adefris, an alliance leader who manages Catalyst Miami’s climate-resilience program. “They want to come up with a good agreement that makes people happy. Because they know voters can vote it down. It looks like a tax from the language on the ballot. That gives us a good amount of leverage.”

FPL issued a response to the letter Monday, branding the demands as political and misinformed. The letter said FPL already won’t turn off power during official heat advisories, spends millions of dollars on programs designed to lower utility costs for low-income customers, and exceeds federal clean-energy goals for 2030.

“This is not the first time we have seen groups propose slipshod policy through transparently political means without even bothering to do basic research into the issues their proposals involve,” read the letter from Pamela Rauch, the utility’s vice president of external affairs.

Fernand Amandi, a leading Miami-Dade pollster, said he considers it unlikely that Miami-Dade voters would say no to extending the franchise fee, given past adoption of higher taxes to fund expansions at the Jackson hospital system and Miami-Dade school system.

“I think it’s a misnomer to say Miami-Dade County is anti-tax,” Amandi said. “On the big asks, this community has responded.”