MARCO ISLAND — A million dollar question developed into multimillion dollar questions for Marco Island’s utility advisory committee Wednesday.
This summer an approximate $1.1 million surplus in electric franchise fees collected on behalf of the city by Marco’s electric provider, Lee County Electric Cooperative, surfaced with many residents begging for a refund when the project to bury overhead electric lines was canceled.
Members of the utility committee had various opinions on what to do with the money as they tackle how to avoid water and waste water users getting cumulative increases of more than 50 percent over the next five years.
“Should we consider having the franchise fee put into utilities to lower the rates?” utility committee member Jose Granda suggested.
Amadeo Petricca, a Marco Island Taxpayers’ Association board member and member of the utilities advisory committee, maintains that a refund to the residents and all who paid the fee is the right way to go.
The committee chose not to take a stance and to leave the issue up to council. That million dollar question is anticipated to be answered by final decision on the matter Oct. 19.
If the electric fee surplus was put into the utility, the projected utility rate increase of 13 percent anticipated October 2010 would go down to about 9 percent. If customers got a refund, an electric customer with an approximate $100 per month average bill would get a one-time refund of less than $50.
Residents may eliminate about 1 percent of the projected utility increases for every $250,000 the committee can save in utility expenses for the city.
One recommendation made by the committee Wednesday is to delay the green utility building, which when initially supported by council left many residents commenting that the $5.5 million building’s “green” description was more reflective of the price than the environmentally-friendly features.
Cuts in the costs for 2010 and 2011 recommended by the committee are not yet final as their recommendation is not expected until early November. However, at this stage, the initial 13 percent increase each year is looking to be trimmed to 10 percent hikes or less.
The committee recommended delaying the green utility building project until 2011 instead of the initial plan to build it in 2010. They also recommended cutting the cost of the building in half.
Their recommendation was to spend about $60,000 this year for new trailers to replace the existing, dilapidated and mold-infested trailers the utility department operates out of currently.
Members of the committee expressed a level of frustration in their direction from council that inequitable sewer rates between single family homes and condos was not an issue the committee could investigate.
“I’d like to discuss that, but we’re not allowed,” said utility committee member Ken Honecker.
Vice Chairman Frank Recker had showed support for the committee addressing the inequities, but the rest of Council did not jump on board.
Instead, the issue may be addressed by a longterm utility advisory board if one is established by Council.
Petricca said more than $1 million could be raised by making utility rates on Island more equitable.
“You can’t have a special class of citizens on the Island,” Petricca said.
There are more than 8,475 condo units on master meters with their residents paying about $4 per month for sewer service compared to single family home dwellers paying $22 per month expense for waste water service, Petricca added.
The inequity, he says, adds up to more than $1 million in potential utility income lost from condos.
Public Works Director Rony Joel said he couldn’t validate the $1 million figure.
“I can’t substantiate that either,” said Granda.
Neither Joel nor Granda offered an alternate figure, but no one can dispute that sewer rates for condos are lower than single family sewer rates.
“We wouldn’t do the rate structure evaluation, but when we bring it to Council, we can recommend it’s something they ought to do,” committee member John Arceri said.
A vote from the committee was not taken on the matter.
Another financial question in the utility has been left dangling for about two years.
Since 2007, Petricca and other members of MITA have been asking what happened to about $600,000 paid by new sewer customers to help pay for about $1.2 million in anticipated utility plant upgrades.
Granda and Bob Brown of the utility committee said an answer must be provided.
“Is this another situation where the money shows up later? People start paying and then this money shows up some place?” Honecker asked rhetorically.
All agreed it was a finance department question, and with the high turnover in that department, there remains more questions than answers.