MARCO ISLAND — If you consider a potential City of Marco Island takeover of its electricity services a power surge, then Wednesday afternoon began the long and complicated process connecting those circuits.
The city held its first meeting of the “Electric Municipalization Ad-Hoc Committee,” the group charged with determining the costs of grabbing the city’s electric utility from current provider Lee County Electric Cooperative, or LCEC.
A robust 18 city residents serving on the committee attended Wednesday, crowded into a training room in the city’s fire station. City Public Works Director Rony Joel, who’s serving as the staff’s liaison to the committee, explained the endgame.
“We know the conclusions,” Joel said. “There are three. One, do nothing; two, negotiate with LCEC; three, go to the public referendum (about buying the utility) at the next election.”
Joel and City Councilman Jerry Gibson, the committee’s non-voting chair, emphasized the committee’s job is fact finding. By April, with the help of a consultant, the committee expects to present to City Council an analysis of what a takeover would entail and any potential savings to city electric users or additional revenues to city coffers.
The committee will be hiring a consultant, form sub-committees, interview municipalities that own power companies and crunch numbers.
“There’s no glamour in our job,” Gibson said.
Since news leaked in late April about city officials wanting to look into a takeover, debate has not only focused on cost but also on Lee County Electric Cooperative’s positive reputation on the island, including near universal acclaim for efforts to restore power after Hurricane Wilma three years ago.
E-mails, letters to the editor and guest editorials have flown back and forth between camps solidifying nearly along the same lines as the great debate about installing an island-wide central sewer system, which swallowed all Marco politics for years.
Gibson said it was important for everyone on the committee to have an open mind.
“People who have made public comments either for or against municipalization have already earned my mistrust,” he said.
But public opinion appears to be against a city takeover. The Marco Island Civic Association recently released a survey with 73.3 percent of over 2,500 association members responding opposing the idea.
Lee County Electric Cooperative has maintained it has no interest in selling off Marco’s services and said the only way it could happen would be if the city condemned the electric lines. The cooperative has also expressed dismay that talks have reached this point.
Lee County Electric Cooperative executive Tricia Dorn, who’s in charge of Marco Island’s account, sat tight-lipped through Joel’s presentation during the meeting. Joel presented data that suggested Marco was subsidizing the rest of the cooperative’s service area.
“Part of the challenge we have and part of the problem the group has is we have to learn more about LCEC,” Joel said. “We may be pleasantly surprised by what we find out.”
After the meeting, Dorn said sections of the meeting were hard to take.
“Obviously, it is difficult to listen to a community of this type talk about a potential takeover of the company you work for,” Dorn said.
Dorn said she plans to attend all the committee’s meetings and follow up on some of the issues discussed Wednesday.
“I look forward to this process to bring the facts out,” she said.
Dorn added that Lee County Electric Cooperative has heard from numerous customers concerned about its relationship with the city.
“That relationship has been unaffected to this point,” she said.
The committee’s first task will be hiring a consultant, and that process will start at the next meeting, Sept. 17. Eight consultants inquired about the project, but interest waned due to current or potential conflicts of interest with Lee County Electric Cooperative, Joel said. After the meeting, Joel identified the two remaining consultants as R.W. Beck, a Seattle-based firm with 22 offices in the U.S. including Tampa and Orlando, and Virchow, Krause & Co., a Milwaukee-based firm with eight offices in the upper Midwest. Joel has said he expects a consultant to cost around $25,000, which will be paid from the 5 percent fee on city electric bills earmarked for putting electric lines underground.
Marco appears not to be the only city having issues with Lee County Electric Cooperative.
Last week, officials from the City of Cape Coral, which is also serviced by LCEC, met with Joel, Gibson and Marco City Manager Steve Thompson to discuss Cape Coral’s efforts to put its power lines underground. That’s the issue that sparked Marco’s interest in taking over city electric services.
“They were kind of pumping us on information on undergrounding because they’re running into the same stonewalling we were,” Gibson said.
Gibson added that Cape Coral officials’ “curiosity was piqued” about Marco’s potential takeover of its electric service, but it wasn’t a topic of discussion.