MARCO ISLAND — Marco’s million dollar question has been hanging in the air for weeks and some residents weren’t pleased with the final answer Monday.
Preliminary decisions made by council in workshops this summer weren’t official and the final answer almost got delayed again.
“Do we have to brainstorm this tonight? I mean God forbid it would sit there for a while,” Vice Chairman Frank Recker said.
Council did make a decision though and voted 5-2 not to refund about $1.1 million in extra electric franchise fees. Council’s attention was needed on the matter after it was learned a surplus had accrued rather than an earlier reported debt on a project to put overhead electric lines underground.
The accrual came from a 3.6 percent electric franchise fee paid to the Island’s electric provider, Lee County Electric Cooperative. LCEC collected the money on behalf of the city and it was to be used for a then-popular underground electric line project.
The project to put overhead electric lines underground Island-wide was canceled when project cost estimates from LCEC continued to escalate.
The issue has been contentious because some of the money from the electric fee was spent by the city for street lights not underground electric projects.
Marco Island Taxpayers’ Association board member Amadeo Petricca and President Fay Biles have minced no words about what they thought of the city’s management of this money.
Biles reminded council that “misappropriation of funds” is illegal and she says she could have a strong legal case against the city.
Council considered many ways to use the money including $35,000 for a memorial at Veterans’ Community Park (as requested by Marco VFW Post 6370 Commander Dave Gardner), $150,000 on street lights for athletic fields at Mackle Park (as suggested by President of the Optimist Club Tom Garousi) and $400,000 on burying overhead electric lines near Veterans’ Community Park (as requested by Councilman Bill Trotter).
“You can do just about anything you want to with it at this point,” City Manger Steve Thompson said.
“Obviously, I disagree with all of you. You’ve misappropriated millions of dollars from this fund already,” said Petricca.
Councilman Chuck Kiester questioned whether it might be prudent to try to get money back to those who paid it without the expense of issuing dollar-for-dollar refunds. He suggested reducing proposed utility rate increases. If this were done, city utility customers would get about a 8 percent rate increase on water and waste water rates instead of the currently proposed 13 percent increase.
“You shouldn’t offset one problem by creating another problem,” Petricca said.
Council voted 5-2 to spend $550,000 on putting electric lines underground at Veterans’ Community Park and to put lighting on athletic fields at Mackle Park. The remaining $550,000 would go into capital contingency. Councilmen Ted Forcht and Jerry Gibson opposed.
If refunded, the Island’s two largest hotels would get refunds of about $150,000 each, Public Works Director Rony Joel reported.
When combined, the city and the city-run utility would get the largest refund.
A resident with an average bill of about $100 per month would have received about a $42 refund, Joel reported.
Resident Ken Honecker said it was a small amount of money but it was the point of what had happened that mattered to him.
“It’s a needle under your nail type of thing,” Honecker said.