Collier citizens register concerns with county officials at town hall meeting

Residents from southeastern Collier County love their landscaped medians, fear too much road access and are frustrated by lack of access to government cable channels.

Few questions emerged from a Wednesday night Town Hall meeting except for queries on those issues, after fairly comprehensive presentations by County Manager Jim Mudd and his senior staffers.

Judy Condon-Miller of Kings Lake in East Naples is experiencing a problem by more than a handful of Comcast subscribers since channels were switched around. She can’t get Collier County’s meetings on Channel 97, but can receive Naples Channel 98 just fine.

“Is there a possibility that (channels) can be moved back?” she asked Collier County officials, who, then introduced Maureen Cestari, Comcast’s government liaison.

East Naples civic activist Bob Murray expressed the same concerns.

Reception had become such an issue that Collier County officials had to place a note on the government’s Web site, stating that television viewers should call Comcast.

Cestari explained that, in some cases, the new basic cable channels are competing with some 12 FM radio stations. Both send out signals over the same band widths, she said.

Most of the problems have been corrected — connections just had to be tightened — but Comcast is still tracking down the most resistant hook-ups.

“There were a lot of wiggles (after) the transition. Is it really just a tightening process,” Murray asked Cestari.

“We are a partner in this community. Our intentions in changing channels was not to create any problems,” Cestari said. “For anyone who is having problems with that channel, there’s no problem that can’t be resolved.”

It was an especially important issue Wednesday night, because the meeting was televised live from the new South Regional Library.

Those who expressed interest in continued landscaping, and too much traffic intrusion, received some reassurances.

A lot of transportation projects might have to be put on temporary hold as money becomes scarce, said county officials.

One man who identified himself as a Realtor, but couldn’t be identified because he left just after the transportation presentation, asked Collier’s transportation czar Norm Feder if the county will remain pretty – and roads even – with the help of economic stimulus money.

“I’m a Realtor in the community. There’s always a favorable response to medians,” he said, then asked how much money Collier is likely to receive.

Maybe, $5.7 million, Feder said.

The money got tied to the current federal process of distribution, Feder said. On one hand, Collier got some money for the Everglades Interchange — which places the county on the map – and a little more this year for the Davis Boulevard Interchange.

“We’re going aggressively after the stimulus money,” Feder said.

However, Commissioner Fred Coyle warned attendees not to be too hopeful.

“One of my pet peeves is for politicians to deceive people (about) what they’re really getting,” Coyle said. “We’re not going to get any stimulus money. We will get maybe $5 million. We run through $5 million in five days. Don’t let anyone tell you we’re going to solve economic problems with money coming from Washington.”

Commissioners have prioritized a list of projects worth more than $100 million, and identified them to Florida Department of Transportation.

“Even if our list is accepted by the state and federal government as qualifying, $5 million is not going to get us anywhere,” Coyle said.

Commissioner Jim Coletta agreed. Even in the best of times, money was hard to get from Washington through Tallahassee, he said.

That was kind of good news to people at the meeting who are anxious over continued expansion of the Collier Boulevard-Davis Road intersection, as well as plans at Wilson Boulevard-Benfield Road.

Feder confirmed to a resident, who also left just after the transportation presentation, that the Benfield-Wilson project is still just a study.

“There’s no design money,” Feder said. Traffic mavens are still trying to define that corridor, Feder said.

Mudd was in the uncomfortable position of telling residents what he already told commissioners on Tuesday: that the latest calculations look like Collier’s taxable property base will decrease by some 23 percent, not the 14 percent initially forecast. Those are 2008 assessments. They’re always one year behind. Calculations for 2009 will be available in 2010.

But Mudd was open, honest and receptive.

“Does anyone here understand your tax bill?” he asked, with humor. “I’ve tried to simply it as much as I can.”

Showing a pie chart, Mudd pointed out that of one’s total property tax bill, Collier County government controls only 27.2 percent of the total bill.

“The rest is controlled by someone else,” Mudd said, referring to schools and other taxing agencies.

Of that 27.2 percent, more than half is dedicated to public health and safety programs, Mudd said.

Commission Chairwoman Donna Fiala, who hosted the event, stressed that point, and bemoaned the county’s ability to further cut taxes.

“We can lower the (property tax) rate, yes, but if we cut any deeper, we’re going to have to cut off limbs,” Fiala said.

Despite continued cuts, Collier Sheriff Kevin Rambosk and Code Enforcement Director Diane Flagg shared some promising news.

Out of 67 counties in the state, Collier ranks 12 for low crime rate communities.

“Only 11 counties have a lesser crime rate, and most of them...are rural,” Rambosk said. “We’ve had a terrific 2008. We’ve seen crime reduced.”

He congratulated county staff and elected officials, as well as residents who turned out for the session.

“You have truly created a community, not only in the state, but around the country, that people want to come to,” Rambosk said.

However, there are challenges: foreclosed and vacant homes.

Deputies are working with Flagg to try to safeguard the community, and eradicate community deterioration, Rambosk said.

“This year, we saw an increase in shoplifting, which has become the No. 1 property crime, followed by auto break-ins,” he said.

Starting March 19, Rambosk will launch a series of town hall-style meetings, and urged county residents to attend and get involved in community task forces that have been set up.

“We invite everyone to help us create our (future) strategic plan,” Rambosk said.

Flagg spoke of her continued success with her fledgling Blight Prevention Program, launched late last year.

There are five community task force teams, and numerous agencies are involved, as well as 100 percent of banks holding foreclosed properties.

Flagg said she is working with 50 banks that have agreed to clean up the properties, so when they sell them they’re not hit with code violations.

The banks are alerted to the property’s shortcomings and hires the contractors, Flagg said.

“Very often, they’re using local contractors,” Flagg said. But the key component to blight prevention is participation in the task force teams, she stressed.

When the program ended, several attendees said they were impressed by the quality of information.

Lely resident Bob Slebodnik said the county had put on a good presentation.

“One of the best I’ve seen,” said Slebodnik.

Real estate broker Jean Kungle lives in Port of the Islands and East Naples is very important to her, as well as her clients. It’s where they shop and do business.

“It’s good to have this information. I thought it was a very good presentation,” Kungle said.

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