MARCO ISLAND — If you have an individual water meter here on Marco Island, your monthly bill is about to get $25 smaller starting Jan. 1. In the face of a 10.5 percent increase mandated by bond insurers, and fees from the septic tank replacement program, it may not seem like much. However, the new rate structure represents months of preparation and public input by the city’s Utility Advisory Board (UAB), and much political wrangling between condominiums, commercial interests and single-family homeowners.
The bonds issued on the city’s debt from the 2003 purchase of the water utility require a 10.5 percent rate hike in 2011. The UAB studied various ways to implement the increase and spent the summer presenting the options to the community.
On Aug. 16, the UAB presented its recommendations to City Council, arguing in part, for a plan that would break down the debt evenly across the board. Under the current plan, homes and single-metered condominiums pay around $22 for that fee, while master meter condos pay just $3, one of the disparities that led homeowners to complain that their high rates were subsidizing larger condos and hotels.
Instead of implementing a plan, council voted to spend $50,000 on an outside consultant to study the UAB’s data and draw, in the terms of Councilor Wayne Waldack, an “independent” conclusion, setting off extensive public criticism for the Council’s disregard of the UAB’s work.
Finally, at the Sept. 7 Council meeting, Chairman Frank Recker reconsidered his vote and proposed that Council adopt the UAB’s flat rate structure ahead of the cost of service study.
“After that vote, I continued to think long and hard about our decision, and I questioned myself about waiting to implement at least a sewer fee adjustment as Bill Trotter had urged prior to our vote. As he stated, we could take a step towards a more equitable rate structure now.”
Recker also believed the UAB’s data analysis and the public input they collected should not be set aside .
According to Amadeo Petricca, the UAB’s vice chair, the average homeowner now sees a $55 charge each month on their water bill. It comes from a sewer use fee of about $29 plus a base fee of $25 that pays down the bond debt. The new base rate will charge a use fee of $29 for sewer charges and nothing more.
“Come Jan. 1, they (master meter condos) pay their fair share. The burden is reduced for single family and individual-metered condos,” says Petricca. Each unit in the master meter condos will now pay $29 per month.
Chairman Recker added that as a result of the change, some condominiums will see rates decrease, others an increase. Larger commercial institutions such as hotels which will likely experience an increase in wastewater charges of about 20 percent. Recker stands behind the change because “there has been virtually unanimous agreement that sewer charges assessed to the single-family homeowners were inequitable when compared with the other groups.”
The yearly savings on a water bill for a homeowner will be about $300.
The cost of service study called for by Council has the potential to address further inequities in water use, according to Councilman Larry Magel.
“You will see a greater disparity on the water side,” he stated while arguing against the change in rates. “We need to look at the whole picture, not just give a sop to homeowners.”
Bill McMullen is one such homeowner and longtime resident who was pleased to see Council take action on the UAB’s plan to evenly distribute the debt.
“I think the Council was inundated by calls from Marcoites after the first vote to address the sewer base rate inequity issue which could be implemented immediately. It would have little, if any, impact on the rate study that will take place over the next few months. The rate study can be addressed when completed and further adjustments can be implemented at any time during the year.”
The study will bear watching for everyone who pays a city water bill as it seeks to explain who should pay what for water. Within the master meter condos themselves lies another tangle of unfairly distributed fees that the UAB pointed out.
“Seventy-five percent of the residents don’t live in those condos year-round, but they are subsidizing the water for those who do live there year-round because everybody shares in the average,” says Petricca.