MARCO ISLAND — Like most of the electric lines on Marco Island, the City Council’s decision on whether to refund more than $1 million to residents isn’t exactly a buried issue. The residents wanted the $1.1 million they paid through electrical bills back after council canceled a project to put electrical lines underground.
Many residents were dismayed after council decided, by general consensus during an Aug. 12 budget session, to keep the cash instead of giving it back to the residents. If electric bills were about $100 per month, customers would be looking at an approximately $50 refund.
Council took a new direction Monday and suggested City Manager Steve Thompson develop a method for a partial refund.
“I’m not happy with it, but I will acquiesce,” said resident Amadeo Petricca, who is a member of the Marco Island Taxpayer Association board.
Thompson confirmed after the council met that a partial refund is forthcoming as are the details. He pointed out that a method of how electric customers will apply for a partial refund will be announced soon.
Councilman Ted Forcht pointed out that the city would be due the most money as the city’s utility and general fund account for two of the three largest electric users on Marco. Besides the city, the Marriott resort is the next largest user and is due the next most significant chunk of the cash.
Some residents, including Petricca, have said they don’t mind who gets the most, they just want their share.
To satisfy the premise of the original project, Councilman Bill Trotter had suggested spending $400,000 to place electric lines underground at Veterans’ Community Park.
City Attorney Alan Gabriel said Monday that the money could be placed in reserves without a formal vote, but approval of the new project to bury lines at the park needed a vote during a not-yet-scheduled public meeting.
The city recently closed a portion of Elkcam Circle, which ran through Veterans’ Community Park, to increase the open lawn space there. The electric poles are the only remaining obstruction for the entire park to become an open space with flexibility for future development.
“It’s completely consistent with what we were trying to do with the underground projects and fee,” Trotter had said of his proposal.
Residents have been upset about the idea of money being spent on other projects because initially the fee was set up specifically for putting all electric wires underground, a project many Marco residents supported for safety, aesthetic and storm-endurance reasons, according to annual surveys by the Marco Island Civic Association.
However, money was spent on electric bills and street light improvements, leaving many residents outraged by the misappropriation.
“We want a refund of the total amount because it was collected on an erroneous assumption that we’d be in a deficit in the electric fund at the end of 2008. They got the money under false pretenses,” Petricca said.
The electric franchise fee began as a 5 percent fee in October 2004, and as of January 2009, the fee was lowered on the bills to 3.6 percent, said Karen Ryan, a Lee County Electric Cooperative spokeswoman. Lee County Electric is the provider for electricity on Marco.
The fee was nearly canceled in 2009, but council kept the lower rate because a $900,000 deficit in the account was reported by then-Finance Director Bill Harrison.
The first bill to reflect council’s decision to end the fee will be on customers’ Oct. 1 bill, but by then about $1.1 million will have been collected for a project that was canceled and for a deficit that does not exist.
After the initial budget meeting, resident Ken Honecker had said he didn’t think council’s decision on the matter was clear due to the lack of a formal vote in the workshop setting.
Chairman Rob Popoff said at the time that he hoped the decision was final.
However, contention over the decision sparked a new response Monday.
Petricca said he wished council took his suggestion to refund the full $1.1 million through a proportionate reduction in property taxes. It would decrease the city’s currently proposed rate of 1.75 mils, or $1.75 per $1,000 of taxable property value, to 1.6259 mils, or about $1.63 per $1,000 of taxable property value.
Since no formal vote has been made, it appears the electric franchise fee refund debate could spark up again at almost any time.