MARCO ISLAND — In the face of public opposition to its $6 million price tag, and uncertainty over city staff’s plan to pay for it, City Council chose not to move forward with either the installation of new fire hydrants or the purchase of a new tanker pumper truck for the fire department.
Instead, council voted to table the issue until October. At that time a decision will be made at a special workshop with public input.
At previous City Council and utilities advisory board meetings, Fire Chief Mike Murphy proposed adding a pumper tanker fire truck and three firefighters to staff it. The truck is meant to be a response to a secondary problem pointed out by a previous utilities study: The fact that many island residences are located outside the recommended distance from a fire hydrant
Fire Chief Mike Murphy confirmed that approximately 300 island homes are out of the recommended range of 500 feet. A cost-saving compromise proposed by the utilities advisory board would use a standard of 1,000 feet instead.
Adding new fire hydrants and water lines is a three year, $6 million project. According to city staff, the installation of fire hydrants is a water and sewer department expenditure, but no water rate increases are anticipated as a direct result of the project.
Ken Honecker, chairman of the utilities advisory board, has previously recommended borrowing money from the general fund and using water and sewer operating funds to repay it.
A conservative estimate for the recommendation that council purchase the tanker, add staff and authorize construction for new fire hydrants comes in at almost $7 million. An expenditure that some island residents find difficult to justify given the current economic climate.
“This has been an existing situation for the entire 40 years since I came across the bridge, and it seems reasonable to put off for a couple of years while the economy recovers and/or appropriate lines and hydrants are put in place,” said Bill McMullen, an island resident and author of Eye on Marco, a newsletter he describes as normally apolitical. He’s raised this issue in the current edition out of concern over city spending and the proposed tax increase.
“I can find no state or federal law that requires 500 feet,” he added. “It’s a nice to have.”
Councilman Bill Trotter felt confident that the city would need to borrow minimal funds and would resolve an important safety issue, pointing out, “city code says we should have hydrants at 500 feet. By doing the hydrants at 1,000 feet we will impact over 1,000 properties who are either out of the 500 or 1,000 range.”
He added that even a pessimistic view of revenue from the water utility would cover a short-term loan.
Several council members questioned city staff budget projections for the project. “It feels rushed,” added Councilman Chuck Kiester.
Councilman Larry Magel also expressed a negative view of the math produced by city staff. “I don’t understand how you can spend 6 million and have it have no impact. Especially if we don’t have a 1.98 millage rate. Are you robbing Peter to pay Paul? I just don’t see it. I’m concerned that we are reducing emergency reserves.”
The revenue to cover the project is based on rate increases that are already required as part of the water utility bond issue. Patricia Bliss explained that paying for the project would assume rate increases through 2014. Any changes to the rates would impact the city’s ability to pay for the project.
Although almost the entire council acknowledged the legitimate safety issue, Councilman Joe Batte summed up the economic challenge the project presents. “People are not afraid their house will burn up, they are afraid they won’t be able to afford to stay in their house. All the gods would have to line up for us to pay for it.”