MARCO ISLAND — Marco City Council's Vice Chairman Frank Recker said he was "ballistic" over the City Attorney suggested changes to the City Charter and later at the meeting Monday, members of the Marco Island Taxpayers' Association said they were equally upset about Council's "misappropriation of funds."
Council's doubleheader Monday began with a workshop on three issues, including restaurant parking regulations, parking tickets in residential areas as they related to the short-term resort rental housing controversy and a review of the 2010 budget. In the regular evening meeting, Council addressed at least three topics receiving considerable attention from residents including recommended changes to the City Charter to come on a January ballot, selecting a design and engineer to replace the Smokehouse Bay Bridge and the issue of whether to return, spend or save about $1 million in surplus electric fees collected by the city.
Council had asked City Manager Steve Thompson to cut about another $400,000 from the 2010 budget or more. The goal was for the cuts to be proportionately taken from operation expenses and projects. That would represent about 85 percent of those cuts being from operations, such as service supports costs, and the remaining 15 percent of the cuts coming from projects.
City Councilman Bill Trotter did not find the recommendations made by Thompson Monday to be satisfactory and will be working with Thompson for the cuts to made in a ratio consistent with that of the entire budget, which is about 85 percent personnel and other operating costs. Trotter also suggested the budget process needs to change as the economy has changed.
He wants to go through the budget more line-by-line and also keep the goal of budgeting up to a 1.6 millage rate, putting the .5 mils remaining from the budget rate of 1.65 mils, or $1.65 per $1,000 of taxable property value, approved by Council earlier, in an unallocated contingency fund.
The recommendations are expected to come back in December with $420,000 in operations expenses to be cut.
Neighborhood disturbances, resort rentals and parking tickets
Council gave Police Chief Thom Carr and Community Development Director Steve Olmsted direction to continue with their efforts to educate and enforce current parking, noise and trash ordinances as the two directors had planned.
Carr said the trend in the last week is that fewer tickets are being issued as residents seem to be learning more about the rules.
The particular concern for law enforcement is the safety problem of blocking sidewalks.
Residents said they didn't understand why parking safely in swales was a problem.
"I'd rather them be in the swale than in jail," Councilman Ted Forcht said, reiterating what several parents of teenagers voiced at the meeting.
Parents with teen-aged children said they have more vehicles than fit in their driveways at times, but didn't see the problem with them parking in swales and would prefer their teens were home.
Olmsted is also suggesting looking at changing planning and zoning regulations to allow for additional parking along side homes. He suggested a review of side yard set backs.
Also, a suggestion to allow code enforcement officers to give more immediate tickets, particularly for noise violations, will be considered at a future meeting after staff draws up more specific ideas to deal with problems reported by neighbors of short term resort rental properties in residential areas.
Council gave direction for staff to present several potential changes to rules of how many parking spaces restaurants must have. The issue has been under review by the city several times.
Jim Riviere suggested that restaurateurs continued requests for a review of the rules is a symptom that something is not right.
Planning Board Member Monte Lazarus said he didn't think government should be regulating businesses in such a way. Recker and Chairman Rob Popoff agreed.
Trotter said no rules at all would present new problems.
Council agreed and requested new regulations be proposed to remove portions of the ordinances that regulate parking spaces in relation to the number of seats at the restaurant.
Instead, Council suggested parking for both free-standing restaurants and restaurants in shopping centers be based on square footage rather than seats. Currently, free-standing restaurants must have one parking space per four seats and some say it's inequitable compared to restaurants in shopping centers which must have one space per 250 square feet of restaurant space.
Lazarus suggested square footage of outside seating not be included. Popoff and Recker agreed, but the idea didn't have Council consensus Monday.
After three changes in the last couple years to make parking requirements more lenient, Council plans to address the issue at least one more time at a future meeting.
COUNCIL REGULAR MEETING
Condo versus single family home water and sewer rates
Resident Richard Schoen was not pleased with single family home owners paying more than condo dwellers for water, reuse water and sewer rates.
Condo people paying about $4 per month for base rates while single family home users are paying more than $20 per month was not fair, he said.
"This has got to be cleared up before the end of the year," said Schoen.
Resident Clayton Lietz requested Council give financial support for a mausoleum by helping to pay about $250,000 for the project.
Lietz said he wants the mausoleum to be at the Marco Island Cemetery on Elkcam Circle.
Popoff said he thought a church or private individuals would need to support such an effort financially.
Council is considering approval of a new tree ordinance that primarily regulates planting private trees in the public right of way. This is the second reading of the ordinance and if approved will become law.
This creates a process to allow residents to plant trees in front of their of homes on public land. Residents can go to the city to get a permit for a tree to be planted on public land.
Tree permits are to be based on the tree not being a noxious or nuisance species, far enough away from utilities and maintained in such a way it will not damage sidewalks or other public facilities.
Council is considering an ordinance to put seven changes to the City Charter on a ballot in January 2010.
City Attorney Alan Gabriel did not think it was legally advisable to approve one of the changes recommended by the Charter review committee. He advised against an amendment in the City Charter to restrict expenses of $12 million or more to be made by ordinance only. He said it would cause a legal problem with the way the city's septic tank replacement program is financially run.
Recker was very upset about changes in Council's ability to approve an investigation of city operations or people.
The Ad Hoc Charter Review Committee, upon Recker's suggestion, had recommended a change to allow, upon approval of five of seven Council members, to investigate city staff, officials, agencies or departments.
Gabriel presented an ordinance instead that would allow Council to vote to have the City Manager investigate any issue. He said Monday that he made the change because otherwise it would conflict with other areas of the City Charter which prohibits Council from overseeing operations of the city personnel.
Recker said he was "ballistic over" Gabriel's change and wanted the language to be the same as was recommended by the committee and give Council power to launch an investigation of any city official or department.
Other proposed changes are:
-General administrative changes to "clean up" language
-Base the city's spending cap on the 2008 spending levels.
-City Council member term limits of no more than eight years beginning 2014.
-Council member raises of 50 percent or up from $6,000 to $9,000 annually, and a 33 percent raise for the Chairman of $9,000 up to $12,000 annually.
-City Manager must advise Council of any anticipated deviation from authorized expenditures of 10 percent or $250,000, which ever is more restrictive.
After tabling the issue in a 5-2 vote, Councilmen Wayne Waldack and Jerry Gibson brought the issue back. Gibson had been concerned it was too important to rush.
In order to get the changes on a January ballot, the ordinance would have to be approved by Dec. 1. The next ballot opportunity wouldn't be until summer and resident Steve Stefanides said he was concerned summer wasn't the time to get Marco resident participation.
The Charter review committee is going to review changes as made by Recker and Gabriel at the committee's next meeting 10 a.m., Tuesday, Oct. 27 at Mackle Park.
"I get very nervous about doing rash things," Gibson said. He added it hasn't been reviewed for more than 10 years and to rewrite it in 10 weeks was fast-tracking an issue that is too important.
Trotter also wanted more clear language on the proposed change to the spending cap.
Chairman of the Charter Review Committee, Jim Riviere, said the January election is a mail-out election and the August election is at the ballot box. More participation would come in January, he said.
However, there is no burning issue in the City Charter as currently written and the city could go a while longer without it being revised if needed, Riviere said.
Committee member Larry Magel was among several other charter review committee members who quit during the break after the vote to table.
Riviere said it wasn't formal and the meeting is still set for Tuesday.
Marco Island Taxpayers' Association President Fay Biles said the amendment to the spending cap needed to be more clear. She also said she got a letter from the Florida Attorney General confirming the city's spending cap is legal. The Attorney General's Office, however, won't give an opinion to a resident.
Gabriel has requested an opinion on the legality of amendments to the spending cap.
"You might get more of an opportunity to get people to vote with a mail-in ballot, but if they're not informed it's going to be a mess," said resident Ken Honecker, who is also a MITA board member.
MITA board member Amadeo Petricca wanted it to be more clear why 2008 would become the base year for the spending cap.
Biles said after the meeting that such an amendment to the spending cap was not necessary.
Council voted 6-1 to approve the ordinance on the January ballot questions regarding the City Charter. Gibson voted no.
Refund $1 million or no?
Council is to take a final vote on whether to refund or spend about $1.1 million of surplus collections of the electric franchise fee. Customers of the Lee County Electric Cooperative, the Island's electric provider, paid a fee of 3.6 percent on their bill from January through September to pay to underground overhead electric lines. LCEC had collected the fee on behalf of the city.
Trotter has recommended putting electric lines underground in and around Veterans' Community Park as the fee was paid by residents to fund a similar project. He said about $450,000 should be used toward that project.
Several residents said a refund was the only fair way to go.
Petricca said that the money was collected under the "false pretense" reported by then-Finance Director Bill Harrison in September 2008 that there was still about $1 million in debt to pay off for putting wires underground along Collier Boulevard.
Petricca said the money should be refunded to all customers who paid into it because a surplus was actually generated.
Recker said he didn't think it would be cost-effective to refund all the money and reminded the biggest refunds would go to the city and hotels, which are the largest users of electricity on Island.
He added that lights could be put on athletic fields.
Popoff agreed and said the lighting would help for more field-use by children and adults at Mackle Park.
The lighting costs about $150,000. The remaining $550,000 would be put into a capital project contingency fund.
Popoff suggested $35,000 be put toward the veterans' memorial at the park as Dave Gardner of the Marco Island VFW requested. However, Trotter and other Council members decided that should not be part of the discussion at this time.
"If we're not using the funds for the intent that they were taken and we're not going to refund it, I'd like to get it to the most amount of people who would benefit from the funds," Popoff said.
If refunded, the Island's two largest hotels would get refunds of about $150,000 each, Public Works Director Rony Joel reported.
Council asked whether the money should be used to offset utility rate increases.
"You can do just about anything you want to with it at this point," Thompson said.
Biles reminded Council that "misappropriation of funds" is illegal and when some of the money was already used for street lights, she thinks she has a case against the city.
Resident Val Simon and member of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee read a letter by Lazarus, Chairman of the Veterans' Community Park Committee, into the record about the need to put electric lines underground to develop and construct Veterans' Community Park. Lazarus had requested $500,000 be put aside for the project.
"Obviously, I disagree with all of you. You've misappropriated millions of dollars from this fund already," said Petricca.
Use LCEC's money to pay for the easement, which is $550,000, for the suggested projects of the evening, he added.
Kiester asked Petricca and Biles if an offset in proposed utility rate increases would be satisfactory with them.
"You shouldn't offset one problem by creating another problem," Petricca said.
Stefanides wanted the money to be spent on fields and parks. "I volunteer an awful lot of time and I can't think of anything better to do with that money than this," he said.
Stefanides described the tribute to the "greatest generation" of veterans a "drop in the bucket" as well.
"I parked next door in Dr. Guidry's lot under a beautiful light that the electric fee paid for," Honecker said.
Honecker added the refund wasn't a significant amount of money, which was estimated by Joel to be about a $42 refund if the average electric bill for a customer was $100 per month.
"It's a needle under your nail type of thing," Honecker said of the way the money was collected from residents.
Tom Garousi, president of the athletic organization the Optimist Club, urged Council spend the money on fields and said $550,000 from LCEC shouldn't be a problem to spend how ever they want.
"It sounds great, 'let's just refund all the money.' But, people have moved...," Popoff said.
"Do we have to brainstorm this tonight? I mean God forbid it would sit there for a while," Recker said.
Popoff wasn't comfortable with using some as intended and keeping the rest indefinitely.
"All of a sudden everybody is for right and justice. That's wonderful," Recker said.
Forcht and Gibson opposed, but the motion carried to spend $550,000 on putting lines underground at Vets Park and to put lighting on fields at Mackle Park. The remaining $550,000 would go into capital contingency.
Smokehouse Bay Bridge replacement
Trotter called the TY-Lin bridge design a slam-dunk. Forcht questioned the life-span on the steel arch. "I'm a little leery of a steel arch. Make me feel better about it Rony," he said.
Joel said the lifespan is 75 years and there wouldn't be significantly more expenses to paint and maintain the arches and the bridge.
Recker motioned to table. Kiester seconded. The motion failed 4-3 with Recker, Kiester and Forcht wanting to table.
Resident David Abercrombie of 635 North Barfield Drive said he was concerned most about clearance as a boater. "The higher you make that bridge, about 20 percent of your total tax base will be more valuable," he said.
Abercrombie supported the TY-Lin design and said "raise it as high as you can."
Trotter made a motion to enter into an engineering design with TY-Lin and it passed 5-2 with Kiester and Recker opposing.
Council communication on other issues
Recker said Tract K needs to come back up. Recker said he had an understanding that the Board of Education had made a proposal to the city regarding Tract K and Thompson shook his head "no."
Recker suggested sending a proposal to the Board of Education for $250,000 to be paid each year to the Board of Education for the use of Tract K.
"I don't think we should have to pay for that property," Popoff said.
"That property is dead for another six years anyway because there is an eagle on it," Waldack said.
Recker suggested once-a-month executive sessions on pending lawsuits.
There are three appeals that have been filed; we have a threat of a lawsuit that nothing has happened on, Gabriel said. "We have items where there is nothing really happening yet," he added.
There are four cases pending in courts with the potential of a fifth.
"I think a written legal update should be supplied every meeting," Recker said.
Waldack suggested a settlement on a case regarding a property on Spinnaker.
Gabriel suggested the conversation be had another time.
Kiester suggested the city consider waiving the permit fee for converting a septic tank to cistern.
He also said Marco Island has a community service tax on cell phone bills. Kiester said his was $3.26.
Thompson said the communications tax or franchise fee is collected by the state and rebates it. It used to be listed as a Collier County tax since 2001 and now is Marco. He didn't know the impetus for it, but money is sent to the city for it.
Trotter said with $2.6 million in back code enforcement fines there is no incentive for people to pay before their house sells. He suggested charging interest or offering some incentive.
"I don't want to short circuit the code enforcement... but I'd like Council to address it sooner than later," Trotter added.
Thompson said Gabriel mentioned the idea several weeks ago as a way to raise money for the city.
The issues are we have $2.6 million in outstanding fines or fees. The $300,000 from last year were primarily from homes in foreclosure, Thompson said.
He said Council should get the information first and then decide if the Code Enforcement Board should look at the idea of an Amnesty Program for code enforcement liens.
Trotter said the program as suggested offers a lot of savings and a lot of money lost for the city.
Code Board has a proposal to send out demand letters. Thompson thinks letters won't be as successful but would be a "darn mean" letter from the City Attorney.
Trotter suggested that rather than "amnesty or no amnesty" the discussion should be more broad to bring up other ideas to increase compliance and expedite pay back.
Thompson said he just wanted Council to give direction before having Code Enforcement look into it. Council, by general consensus said to send it to the Code Board.
"I assume it will take several meetings," Thompson said.
Gibson agreed with Trotter that the proposal to give a 75 percent savings seemed to be too much.
"The city is going to own a lot of properties on this Island before this is all done," Popoff said.