MARCO ISLAND — Council approved seven proposed amendments to the City Charter Monday. These will all go before voters and include: council raises at the rate of a cost of living adjustment for every year since city inception to be added to council members current $6,000 annual earnings and the chairman’s earnings of $9,000; amending the spending cap, which allows 3 percent plus COLA increases in spending from one year to the next, to be based on 2008 expenditures because it was the last year before council began spending less than the cap allowed due to a down economy; city council may investigate any city employee or department on a vote of five out of seven members; expenses of $12 million or more to be approved by ordinance rather than resolution to allow for opposition to petition against a large project; city manager to inform council as soon as a budget deviation of $250,000 or more is anticipated; change council term limits of two consecutive four-year terms with a maximum of eight years, unless a change in election date causes a term longer than four years; language “clean-up” that does not significantly change city governance.
Marco resident Amadeo Petricca said it didn't make sense to amend the spending cap based on fiscal 2008, which was about $18.8 million after a budget amendment in November 2007, because in all years the city initially voted to spend less than the spending cap thus far, the city later voted to amend the budget to spend up to the cap.
Petricca also didn't think reporting budget deviations of $250,000 was restrictive enough. "If the project was to cost $100,000 and $200,000 was spent, that's material. That's 100 percent over budget and should be reported."
Mail-in ballots on charter amendments and City Council candidates, which currently include Councilmen Ted Forcht and Chuck Kiester along with Larry Magel, are scheduled to be mailed to voters Jan. 6 and must be received by the Supervisor of Elections by 7 p.m., Jan. 26. Additional candidates may file by noon Dec. 1.
There was some reluctance to add all amendments to the ballot due to a sense of a lack of time for voters to understand them, however an educational campaign from the city is anticipated.
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Marco City Council is considering several ballot items on the Jan. 26 mail-in election that would change the City Charter. Among the proposed amendments are increased compensations for council members and a change to the city's spending cap.
The Charter Review Committee recommended a cost of living adjustment for city council members each year beginning January 2011. It is anticipated that COLA will not increase in the next year or two, council and committee members said.
There was some concern whether any raises should be considered for elected officials during the challenging economic times across the country.
Vice Chairman Frank Recker suggested that neither the spending cap amendment or the council compensation issues be considered by voters this January.
"I want people to understand what they're voting on and I'm concerned we don't have time to educate them."
The spending cap, currently limits spending to no more than 3 percent plus COLA more than the year before. The proposal was for 2008 to be the base year to calculate the spending cap so as to avoid using fiscal 2009 or 2010 because those were the two years thus far that the city initially voted less than they were allowed under the spending cap due to the economy.
"It's now or not in the foreseeable future on this," Councilman Bill Trotter said. The January election was the goal because more would participate than in the next election in summer 2010 which is at the polls and is at a time when many Marco Island voters may be out of town.
Other amendments to the City Charter being proposed is for any expenses of $12 million or more to be approved by ordinance rather than resolution, which will allow someone to challenge the expense by having a petition signed by at least 10 percent of voters; the city manager to inform council of any anticipated budget deviation of $250,000 or more; council, on vote of at least five of seven members, shall investigate any city employee or department; council terms are to be four years and the limit will be two-consecutive terms with no members serving more than eight years total unless a change in election dates causes the member to go over the limit.
Councilman Bill Trotter said he thinks council raises to make up for previous years' COLA should be reconsidered.
Charter Review Committee Chairman Jim Riviere said several possibilities were considered to compensate council members, including compensation for expenses and for each meeting.
"That might curb a lot of meetings," Riviere said.
Council members have made $6,000 since the city was created along with the charter in about 1998. The chairman earns $9,000. Increases for COLA, Riviere said. would have led to the chairman instead earning $12,000 annually and other council members earning $9,000. Those increases plus COLA thereafter were the committee's original recommendation, but it was a close 4-3 vote, that was then reconsidered and reversed on two occasions. Their latest recommendation was COLA beginning 2011 only.
"I don't think the electorate is going to vote for any kind of raise... But I think it's a slap in the face for everyone up here for it not to at least go on the ballot," said Chairman Rob Popoff.
Popoff said council members lose time and friends. Popoff, whose seat is set to expire in 2010, will not personally benefit, but said he is very passionate about the issue. He said as of Monday evening that he is not ready to announce whether he will run for council in 2010 or not.
Councilman Jerry Gibson suggested changing the language to keep the $6,000 for council members and $9,000 salary for the chairman and just add language to increase that by COLA every year since inception. The bottom line will remain the same as increasing to $9,000 and $12,000 respectively and then adding COLA in the future, but would help explain why council is even considering this, he said.
"Because it's long over due," Popoff said.
Regarding whether expenses of $12 million or more should all be by ordinance, Trotter didn't fully support the idea. He wanted public welfare, life and safety issues to be exempted. It was already proposed that the STRP related projects would be exempted and so would the improvements to the waste water plant.
"I have faith in the Marco residents that if there was a serious life safety issue, you wouldn't get an objection," Riviere said.
"Mine is the opposite. I wouldn't' want to be challenged on an emergency," Trotter said.
Alan Gabriel, an attorney with the Weiss-Serota law firm representing the city, advised that if it's an emergency, a referendum would not be able to prevent an expense.
Riviere said Jan. 26 is the time to decide whether council members personal opinion was yes or no on each issue. "Give everyone else the same opportunity to vote that you had," he advised council.
Marco Island Taxpayers' Association President Fay Biles opposed amending the spending cap to make 2008 the base year. "The federal COLA really exemplifies where the county is at the time."
Resident Russ Columbo said he agreed with Biles.
"I think we ought to stop nibbling at the cap," Columbo said.
Councilman Chuck Kiester said he supported letting all the items go to voters, but with "some reluctance" because with changes to the language still being made he was concerned about the public being educated on each ballot item come January.
Council unanimously voted toward moving all amendments forward to the ballot to go before voters.