Marco council blog: Utility rate hike dampens, sewer project stays on course

Article Highlights

  • STRP stays on schedule
  • Electric fee refund reconsidered, to be calculated
  • Utility rate hike looks to dampen from 13 percent increase to 9.5 percent hike

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— Though not on the agenda, City Manager Steve Thompson said prior to the meeting that City Council may need to formalize discussions from the August 12 budget meeting regarding a $1.1 million surplus left from fees on electric bills to pay for a recently canceled project to place electric lines underground.

Last week, City Council indicated by consensus that they would like to put the $1.1 million in contingency reserves. Councilman Bill Trotter had suggested spending about $400,000 to put overhead electric lines at Veterans' Community Park underground. Trotter may talk about this in more detail today.

MICA on deed restrictions

City Council heard from the Marco Island Civic Association about how MICA enforces deed restrictions set on about 80 percent or more of the Island's properties by Deltona Corporation when Marco was being developed.

MICA Vice President and Chairman Jim Johnson said the city and MICA have worked together quite well. He said there is almost no ability to change the deed restrictions on residential lots and it's difficult for MICA to catch violations of deed restrictions.

"The city has been great working with MICA on this," Johnson said.

One of the few differences between MICA's deed restrictions and the city's land development code is what can be built on the back of a residential lot. The city allows lanais to be built within the 25-foot setback and MICA only allows pools and pool barriers, Johnson said.

He added that if there is a difference between deed restrictions and city code, MICA's restrictions have always held up in court and both rules apply.

"Does MICA enforce the deed restrictions consistently?" asked Councilman Frank Recker.

"We do so as consistently as humanly possible," Johnson replied.

Trotter asked what might help the city and MICA work together even better.

"Well, we're good on three sides... If the city would agree with us on the rear setback that would be a great help. That would make it easier," Johnson said.

Water/sewer rate hikes dampen

Public Works Director Rony Joel said the 45 percent total percent increases proposed over the next five years, include 13 percent in October, 13 percent in 2010, 8 percent in 2011, 8 percent in 2012 and 3 percent in 2013.

When compounded, the increases add up over the years to more than a 50 percent increase from today's rates.

Joel said he was asked to go back and look for bare minimum increases and absolute necessity projects. "A 9.5 percent increase is truly the minimum that can be lived with," he added.

This increase pays for COLA, bond covenants and bare minimal utility projects needed to ensure people's life and safety, Joel said.

Robert Ory of Public Resources Management, the firm which performed the utility rate study, said they would agree that a 9.5 percent rate increase is a bare minimum.

The utility committee, which council is planning to form at their meeting later this evening, will look into all the assumptions that went into the rate study, including federal COLA, Joel said.

He added that he consulted with former City Councilor John Arceri for agreement on what was the bare minimum.

Councilman Wayne Waldack made a motion to accept the 9.5 percent rate hike. Councilman Bill Trotter said he would second it except he would like to have room for the soon-to-be-created utility committee to study whether COLA really is more than 5 percent. This may effect the final rate increase.

Attorney Alan Gabriel said a motion should not be made in a workshop. Consensus can be given, but final decisions would need to happen in a public meeting. This guidance is why the electric franchise fee surplus may need to come back for more formal council direction than was given during a budget workshop last week.

The scheduled public hearing on the water/sewer rates will be held in September during the budget meetings, beginning Sept. 8.

Resident Phil Kostelnik questioned how the finances got so far off over the past five years.

"The one good thing that all levels of government is good at is raising taxes, rates, fees, etc, etc, etc," Kostelnik said.

Tree ordinance and prohibiting ficus on Marco

The ordinance regulating trees and creating landscaping guidelines has been in the works by the Beautification Advisory Committee for about five years.

"The ordinance has taken on a life of its own," said Parks and Recreation Director Bryan Milk.

Milk said the ordinance was meant to address life and safety issues that can be involved with private trees planted on or near enough to be overhanging public property.

The ordinance creates guidelines for sidewalk maintenance, prohibits ficus trees and "grandfathers in" existing ficus trees, establishes minimum requirements for tree pruning and maintenance when a tree is planted on or near public property.

It does not address disputes among neighbors regarding their trees on private property.

Trotter said he had concerns about the ficus. If you have several and one dies, you then can't replace it. "We have thousands of people on the Island that would be effected," Trotter added.

Councilman Jerry Gibson suggested the city should have a role in educating about the risks of the invasive ficus but should not tell people what they can or cannot plant on their private property.

Vice Chairman Frank Recker said he thought the ordinance goes a bit too far when it states that if a property owner doesn't maintain a tree on their private property, it will be deemed a public nuisance.

Milk said a pro of the ordinance is that if a house is not maintained and in foreclosure, the ordinance would give teeth to code enforcement. He said there are guidelines now but they are somewhat gray.

"This is black and white. It's crystal clear," Milk added.

Syd Mellinger, chairwoman of the beautification committee, said they are more interested in the public property regulations. She added that a goal is for the city to some day be designated Tree City USA, which would allow Marco to get more grants for beautification.

Mellinger said she would like multiple ordinances-- one for public property and one for private.

She said areas of concern include if a child goes by and gets hit by a coconut on their bicycle because a tree isn't properly maintained or if a sidewalk is crumbling because ficus roots are cracking the cement. Mellinger suggested prohibiting ficus just on new construction and that people should use one of several hedge alternatives to ficus when possible.

Chairman Rob Popoff asked for two ordinances, beginning with one that only addressed public property.

Sue Oldershaw, past president of the garden club and a BAC member, said ficus come from India and Malaysia and can grow from 50 to 90 feet tall.

They create big problems for an Island investing large amounts in their sewer system, she said.

"These roots can be very disruptive... Ficus are not meant for our little lots," Oldershaw added.

Utility rates and council election

As council took a break between meetings, Recker answered the question of whether utility rate increases were to begin with a more moderate 9.5 percent increase than the originally proposed increases until after the council election to avoid another election based primarily on utility issues.

During the workshop, council shared their goal of setting a 9.5 percent increase Oct. 1 instead of the originally proposed 13 percent increase. Other increases will be decided after the soon-to-be-established utility board reviews the proposed increases and the plan is that this board will report back in February, after council elections in January.

"If it becomes an election over another two to three percent, it sounds like a boring election to me," Recker said.

Over-sized key to the city goes to resident Bedford Biles

Chairman Rob Popoff presented longtime Island resident Bedford Biles with the first "key to the city," an over sized key symbolizing Biles' contributions, including fighting for the country behind enemy lines in Normandy during the Battle of the Bulge as well as his integral role in supporting the Island community. Check back to marconews.com for a photo of Biles taken during the recognition tonight by Eagle photographer and reporter Quentin Roux.

Changes to water quality classifications

Public Works Director Rony Joel urged council approve a resolution to support the study of new waterbody classifications. Jennifer Hecker, Natural Resource Policy Manager with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida urged council not support the resolution.

She said the new standards will be lower allowing some waterbodies, such as canals, to be classified as "splashable," a significantly lower standard than the current "swimmable and fishable" standards.

"My innate suspicion is this-- why is a state agency asking us to approve a resolution if they have the power to do what they want to do?" Recker asked.

It's not the case that Florida Department of Environment Protection is requiring it, Joel said. The Florida League of Cities is asking the cities to support this, City Manager Steve Thompson said.

"Why would we want to support any initiative that lowers the water quality requirements? ...It doesn't make sense," Trotter said.

Joel said it will cost the city more to meet new standards.

Hecker's description differed saying the standards would be lowered, not cost more.

Council tabled the issue until Sept. 8. (7-0)

Council votes "no" on speeding up the STRP

City Manager Steve Thompson said accelerating the STRP would save $1,500 to $3,000 per property but would require accelerating bonding for plant improvements, which would need to occur faster as well.

Recker said he wished there was more supporting data.

Joel said properties would need to be notified with a public hearing and bidding would need to occur.

"We don't have a solid basis to decide," Recker said.

The estates district has not yet been legally created by council so we can't go out and award a contract for that and it's about a 90-day to 120-day process, Joel responded. He added that the district can't be constructed next year because of the time frame involved.

Joel said districts need to be created, then it needs to go out to bid and still it might not be able to be built.

"If you all say 'yes' on this, the letters are going to go out to the districts and they're going to get all fired up and the work we've been doing to get along with one another is going to go down the drain," said Councilman Ted Forcht, an opponent to the project for the first couple years of the STRP, which began in 2005.

"As far as I'm concerned this fight is over, but if someone wants to stir this back up again, I can get stirred up again," he added.

Councilman Chuck Kiester said residents' personal finances are based on planning when the sewer assessment would be due. If the city accelerated the project and let residents pay on their original payment schedule, it would yield a 4.5 percent rate increase for everyone to make up for it.

Kiester said some feedback indicates construction costs could decrease in the future.

Popoff said when council had broached the idea of expediting the sewer project two years ago, council chose not to, but had they, it would have increased costs, not decreased them the way consultants had indicated at that time.

Waldack made a motion to accept acceleration and it failed for lack of a second.

The Estates district needs to be designed and the others can be put to bid within 60 days, Joel said.

If we can save some money, let's at least look at it, Popoff said.

"The real question is 'how are you going to finance this short term?' You've already got a problem financing what you've got," said resident Ken Honecker, beginning to answer the question he posed to council.

Waldack made another motion to create the sewer districts, put them out to bid and provide a recommendation for awarding the contract. If it's enough of a savings, council will adopt acceleration, Popoff said. Recker seconded the motion.

A.K. Battaglia, who lives in the Estates area to be affected by speeding up the sewer project, said she is not for acceleration because the economy is terrible and construction is going to take a longtime to recover.

"...The only reason for this is to charge the sewer and water fees sooner," she said, urging it wasn't a good enough reason.

"I'm against accelerating this thing," said resident Jay Santiago. He said his reasons are because people are on fixed income, they lost the stocks they were living on, seniors are not getting a COLA increase and municipal bonds are not easily obtained, among other economic challenges.

Santiago also reminded everyone present of Thompson's suggestion at a prior meeting that projects likely shouldn't be moved forward until the financing of those projects have been secured.

Resident Karen Glaub warned that vacant lots need to come into the picture and will have a negative effect on the economics of the project.

Popoff reminded everyone that the idea of acceleration started with council at a workshop about increased rates and that before that, council discussed slowing the process due to rates. "The onus is on council not staff," he said.

"I don't see the need to expedite it. I'm not sure if the anxiety we're going to create by sending mailers out that we're going to move the project up two years is going to be worth the savings," Popoff said, adding that a $7,000 per property owner savings could change his mind.

Gibson said if just doing it for information purposes to learn if there is a savings, maybe people wouldn't get upset.

Gabriel said if you do that you won't get bids.

Gibson's idea held no traction.

The motion to bid the remaining three areas, including the Estates area, and consider accelerating the project failed 4-3 with Forcht, Kiester, Recker and Popoff voting "no."

Scope of a new audit review committee causes some debate

Recker said he wanted a committee that could obtain data from the finance department and review procedures.

"Through the city manager, that's correct," Thompson replied.

"Is that an 'I gottcha'?" Recker asked.

Thompson clarified that the committee would be to oversee selection of the auditor and auditor's work.

"To me, it's financial processes and internal controls that they should be able to look at," Trotter said.

Council voted 6-1 to create an audit advisory committee. Waldack voted against the committee. Forcht appointed Amadeo Petricca of MITA; Kiester deferred selection, Gibson recommend Ron Saffin, Waldack deferred, Trotter chose Tom Kirstein, Recker deferred and Popoff chose Ray Beaufort.

Creation of an Ad Hoc Utilities Advisory Committee

The committee will be looking at bond issues and the rate study. A long-standing utility board may be created at another time, needing either an ordinance to create the standing board or a charter amendment, Thompson said.

"I'd like to ask that it should sunset before the election so it doesn't become an election campaign issue that blurs fact from fiction," Recker said.

"Elections are about blurring facts," Popoff replied and then chuckled.

Honecker said the committee's recommendation and council's utility rate decisions should be sped up so people, such as those in condos, can have the information as they set their budgets.

Council amended the schedule for the committee's recommendation to come back in December instead of February and it passed unanimously.

Forcht deferred his selection. Kiester wanted to add Bob Brown to the list, but chose to defer selection.

Gibson nominated Jose Granda; Recker nominated Larry Magel; Trotter nominated John Arceri; Waldack nominated Don Henderson and Popoff nominated Ken Honecker

Trotter said the utility committee needs to get started ASAP since it's enough for a quorum. Kiester didn't like the idea.

"It's such a tight time frame, they need to get started," Trotter said.

Council decided to get started with Forcht's likely nominee, Amadeo Petricca, and Kiester's likely nominee, Brown, to be part of the committee unless the two councilors have other appointees to be announced before the first utility committee meeting in September.

Other issues

-Private initiative is beginning with Steve Stefanides and Milk to provide money for benches and trees at Veterans' Community Park

-Electric underground issues resurfaced, including the $400,000 estimate to bury Veterans' Community Park wires. Trotter suggested giving refunds for those who apply for them, create the open lawn space at the park and save the rest in unrestricted reserves. Popoff said he liked the idea, although he had wished the issue was over last time, he added with a smile.

Thompson said he would get information out to electric customers on how to apply for a refund.

-The resort rental ordinance has been put off until March, but more specifics are needed on what to do with stricter enforcement until then, Trotter said. He suggested staff make recommendations. Thompson said it will be put on a Sept. work session agenda.

-Waldack wanted a youth council to be considered.

-On Sept. 8, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida will give a presentation.

Check back to marconews.com for final stories Tuesday and in-print Wednesday

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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