A dialogue begun at last week’s first candidate forum continued Tuesday night, in a debate sponsored by Celebrate Marco.
With several more forums to go, the issues are far from resolved, but the debate gave residents an opportunity to see yet another side of the eight candidates during the countdown to the Jan. 29 election.
Celebrate Marco’s debate also provided a balance, said some residents, to the forum sponsored Dec. 6 by political action committee Preserve Our Paradise. Celebrate Marco, an organization sired largely by supporters of the current City Council, is seen as something of the antithesis of Preserve Our Paradise, an organization that sponsored a failed petition to subject the approval of city manager to a voter referendum.
Questions in the first round of debate were generated by Celebrate Marco, with one round of candidate-generated questions and a final round of audience questions. Candidates were first asked to introduce themselves, talk about why they are running and state how long they have been registered voters on Marco.
During the portion of the debate in which audience questions were taken, one resident questioned candidate Roger Hall’s commitment to the island and his genuine interest in city affairs in the face of his relatively recent entrance onto the island political scene.
He evoked his experience in Squaw Valley, CA., where he worked with a water utility facing pressure to expand, and said that experience would lend itself to work on the City Council in Marco Island. Hall registered to vote on Marco after moving to the island full time in 2005, he said.
Joe Batte reported registering in 1999, Jerry Gibson in 1992, Andrew Guidry in 1997, Butch Neylon in 2006, Frank Recker in 1997, Bill Trotter in 2001 and Wayne Waldack in 1996.
Tuesday’s debate also further carved a divide between those candidates who work best under pressure and those who falter when pressed on stickier issues.
When Neylon was invited to call on another candidate, he queried Gibson on the need for reuse water by the city’s condominiums. Gibson had claimed earlier in the night condominiums would not have enough reuse water to serve for irrigation purposes if the sewering project was halted. The result, Gibson said, would be use of more expensive drinking water to irrigate condominium lawns.
Neylon questioned Gibson about the feasibility of using of raw water from the city’s off-island water storage site.
Gibson’s response was less than precise.
“First of all, we do have a number (of reuse lines) that are already in place, and we do not have the water right now,” he said. “Yeah, it is possible, but you are still using the drinking water.”
Gibson went on to say the city did not “have the capability to go along with that right now.”
Neylon requested the chance to “dialogue” with Gibson on the issue, but Fitzgerald stuck to the rule of one question per candidate with no opportunity for rebuttal during the candidate-generated question round.
When asked by Fitzgerald to explain the often-misunderstood Homestead Act and how potential changes will affect Marco Island, Guidry answered with measurably more confidence than in some of his responses to questions at the prior debate.
However, he misspoke on one issue in the homestead exemption changes — how portability would affect a homeowner who decides to move.
Gibson seized the opportunity to point out Guidry’s “glaring mistake,” in which Guidry failed to point out that the tax exemption on a new, more expensive home would only be equal to that of a previously homesteaded property.
Gibson also used his rebuttal to point out the further reduction in tax revenue that could result from an increase to $50,000 exemptions from $25,000 if voters approve the changes in January.
“That much less income on ad valorem taxes could put us into a death spiral as far as ad valorem taxes being decreased over and over,” Gibson said.
Money has been a favored topic in the first two debates, with all of the hopefuls preaching better fiscal responsibility, though from decidedly different angles.
Incumbent Bill Trotter proved to be a strong voice on that count at Tuesday’s debate, raising his hand to offer rebuttal to several issues relating to city spending. He countered both Hall and Batte on issues of city spending for the $100 million Septic Tank Replacement Program. That project is funded entirely through the utility budget, mostly with money from state loans to be paid off as residents pay to hook up to the sewer system.
Hall alleged that funding for the program violates the city spending cap, which limits expenditures in the general fund from exceeding the previous year’s budget by more than 3 percent, plus a cost of living increase, calculated at 3.3 percent for 2008.
“I don’t see how we could have done it without violating the cap,” Hall said. “I do know that this unbelievable spending spree that the island is on has to stop.”
Trotter, the only candidate currently on City Council, rebutted that the sewering project is not subject to the cap, and said that Hall’s comments about the troubled financial state of the city are untrue, according to the city’s financial director.
As with the first debate, conversation hovered around the sewer question, with Neylon coming out as the point-man on wastewater issues for the anti-sewer group. He used many of the same numbers as in the last debate, invoking miles of roads still to receive sewers versus how many have received them in the last two years. Those numbers are 44 and 16, respectively, he said.
But the big topic of debate is what would be at stake in stopping the program. A sharp divide exists between the pro- and anti-sewer candidates who argue about the better business decision for the island -— completing the project as planned or halting it.
Tenor of the debate has taken on the language of a business decision — would the island as a whole be better off for stopping or continuing the Septic Tank Replacement Program?
“It’s a bad business decision to cancel this system,” said Gibson. “The city is telling us $35 million (would be lost). That’s a bad business decision. I would rather pay for something I get than pay for something I don’t get.”
Neylon’s rebuttal focused on the remaining disruption to be expected if the project continues.
“The miles of road is what’s significant,” he said.
His response strikes a chord with the crowd that attests that it is tired of construction and disruption on the island.
Neylon later expounded upon a point made at the earlier debate, that the city will not owe as much as his opponents say.
However, the numbers quoted by Gibson, Recker, Waldack and Trotter come from a city fact sheet that states that $32 million will be lost if contracts are cancelled and the project stopped after the current construction. Rate increases could ensue, the city has warned, and residents might see an additional 17 percent rate increase added to the 16 percent increase already in place.
Neylon has contended the figure to be owed would be more on the order of $26 million, with ability to pay off that debt at about $1.7 million a year with impact fees from those residents that choose to hook up.
That figure assumes that most contracts for future construction could be cancelled without penalty and engineering costs recouped.
Hall echoed, “The only thing we’re going to be putting on hold are a couple of lift stations and that’s it.”
He paused, adding, “And some engineering.
It is the debate that has clutched the island with an iron grip for the last two years, creating the sort of divide that can only be found in local politics: a party system in a non-partisan election. Here, it is sewer versus non-sewer.
And it has led to the sort of infighting that some questions pointed to Tuesday night.
Recker posed a question to Batte asking about his comments that council does not listen to the people of the island.
“Are you really saying, ‘Council does not do what I want, and therefore they’re not a good council’?” Recker asked.
“They’re not attentive at all to what the people want,” Batte countered. “Council wanted to move the election day back to November and allow sitting councilors another eight months on the council.”
In the end, council actually agreed to move elections to January, from the usual March voting date, to correspond with the Presidential Preference Primary.
Batte referenced another issue on which he said the council failed to listen to residents on a “serious public health problem.” He referred to the hydrogen sulfide concerns that plagued construction projects in previous months, leading some residents to say they had experienced respiratory and other problems because of the noxious gas released from groundwater during sewer construction.
On that count, the city was somewhat slower to act, but eventually hired an environmental consulting firm that confirmed the presence of a threat. The city has since purchased equipment appraised by the specialists for treatment of the gas.
Batte defended his frequent remarks against council actions at meetings, stating that he is passionate about the irresponsibility of the current city government.
Batte fired back at Recker with his own question, referencing an e-mail Recker sent to a council member earlier in the year asking if that councilor felt that the residents had all of the information necessary to render an informed opinion about continuing the sewer program.
“Do you really feel the people of this island are not intelligent enough to make those decisions?” Batte asked.
Recker responded that he is simply a proponent of giving people all of the facts necessary to make an informed decision.
“We can’t fix everything for everybody,” Recker said. “There are times when we have to make tough decisions. It’s misleading to tell people, ‘We’re going to bring everybody together and it’s going to be one big, happy family dancing down the street.’ ”
A resident-generated question put the focus back on Batte, asking him about the “people” he says he represents.
“I am a ‘people,’ ” Ken Pagach said. “Hypothetically, if you get elected and no one but me voices an opinion about the sewers, how are you voting and why?”
Batte had this to say: “The STRP must stop. The people should have had an opportunity to stop this a long time ago. We don’t have pollution in Marco Island, only from our current sewer system.”
On a whole, residents coming away from Tuesday’s debate seemed pleased. Most said they learned new information, but did not necessarily experience a change of heart in some already solid opinions.
“It was informative. The candidates have now declared whether they’re for or against sewers,” said resident Steve Zoccoli. However, he added, “I don’t think (tonight) influences my vote.”
He, like others, was sold long ago one a particular slate of candidates, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for candidates to win over voters still.
“I started with four candidates I was going to vote for, but I’m having my opinions changed by listening to some of the candidates,” resident Donna Kay said. “This was put on by a different faction, and it got different people asking different questions.”
Kay declined to say in which direction her vote had shifted, but said she had previously been influenced by friends who encouraged her to vote for one group of candidates over another. Now, she said, she is leaning toward the benefits of a council split in the same way as the community.
“I would just like to see a balanced council, so I think I’m going to have a mixed bag of votes,” Kay said.
John Arceri, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s debate, said that pleases him, regardless of the direction voters might shift.
“I’m glad to see that, because I’ve been concerned about this camp mentality,” he said. “So seeing people move either way is refreshing.”
The next debate takes place Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Marco Island Hilton. It will be sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and the Marco Island Area Association of Realtors. Parking is free.
Check the Dec. 21 edition of the Eagle for coverage of that debate, or go to marconews.com.