Vacant lot owner calls Marco's plan to charge her $12,000 fee 'unfair' - POLL

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Marco Island City Council’s meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the Community Room, 51 Bald Eagle Drive.

— Mary Mueller is among more than 2,000 owners of vacant lots on Marco Island fearing the city will tack on thousands of dollars to their tax bills in a new special assessment.

“I’ve owned condominiums. Everyone is aware condos can have special assessments,” Mueller said. “No one is prepared when they buy vacant lots for this to happen.”

The New Orleans resident inherited the vacant lot on Bluebird Avenue in Marco Island from her mother. Not only did she not account for any assessments, Mueller said she certainly didn’t account for the possibility of the magnitude of the assessments City Council is to consider Monday night.

The water assessments and sewer assessments, which can be paid over 10 years with an 8 percent collection cost, add up to about $12,000 on her property, Mueller said.

The assessments aren’t precisely the same for all vacant property owners. There are 725 property owners facing a wastewater assessment only. This is a $5,141 bill, plus extra fees depending on how long the property owner takes to pay it.

There are 1,950 property owners facing the water assessment and hundreds of these owners face both assessments. The water assessment is $4,228, plus the collections fees when paid over 10 years.

People like Mueller, who are facing both assessments, are looking at bills exceeding $10,000 to be paid incrementally each year on their property tax bill.

“That’s a huge amount of money and basically it’s just because they ran out of money,” Mueller said of the Marco Island utility. “I just don’t think it’s fair.”

“I’ve owned condominiums. Everyone is aware condos can have special assessments,” Mary Mueller said. “No one is prepared when they buy vacant lots for this to happen.”

“Although the city could wait for development of vacant properties to occur and collect the impact fees and monthly charges once developed in the future, the plant was sized to accommodate the undeveloped lots,” city Finance Director Patricia Bliss wrote in an Aug. 9 memo to council members.

Mueller is selling her lot and said these are costs that should be incurred by someone developing.

“Although the city could wait for development of vacant properties to occur and collect the impact fees and monthly charges once developed in the future, the plant was sized to accommodate the undeveloped lots,” city Finance Director Patricia Bliss wrote in an Aug. 9 memo to council members.

Also, Bliss said, the system’s availability and readiness to serve benefits undeveloped property owners who don’t currently pay base fees or usage charges.

The vacant properties facing assessment are the only remaining lots whose owners haven’t been paying into the system through connection fees that came with the nearly completed island-wide septic tank replacement program, Bliss said. These properties under consideration are undeveloped lots outside the 17 sewer districts.

The utility has been struggling to find ways to make up for budget shortfalls while anticipating significant annual increases in utility rates for several years in a row. Increases were approximately 10 percent in 2009 and 2010.

City officials have said that with undeveloped lot owners paying these assessments, there could be a reduction or even elimination of the next utility rate hike, which is to be a 6 percent increase effective Oct. 1 to be paid by all water and sewer users. This rate increase also is before City Council on Monday night.

City Council initially approved the vacant lots assessments on July 18. If given final approval Monday, they will appear on the 2012 property tax bills sent out by Collier County officials in November.

In other business, council is to consider two options to pay the estimated $8.8 million replacement of the Smokehouse Bay Bridge. T.Y. Lin International was selected as the design engineer. The Smokehouse Bridge is on Collier Boulevard near the Winn-Dixie.

The city has been setting aside money to replace the two Smokehouse Bay Bridge spans, including $500,000 set aside in 2009. There is currently $3.1 million total set aside for the bridge. Combined with a $600,000 grant, council will be discussing whether to use reserves or a combination of reserves and a loan to have about $5.4 million set aside by the end of 2012.

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Comments » 3

marco826 writes:

Money grab.

marcofriend writes:

I certainly sympathize with the vacant lot owners. Now they know how everyone felt when the STRP was jammed down our throats without an appropriate plan to pay for it. We go $250 million in debt, find out the due diligence was only partially done, and the pain just increases every year. Perhaps the only "fair" thing to do is to charge only the lot owners that are outside of an STRP district for the WasteWater assessment, since all lot owners inside of STRP districts had to pay for it. The water assessment could be held off for all lot owners until they sell or build. The powers that were in place a few years back told everyone that build out would occur by 2008 and that is why we now need to pay for the extra capacity that no one needs.

ajm3s writes:

I understand that on its face, vacant lot owners are potentially going to face an assessment for the expansion and upgrade of a utility they do not currently use.

By virtue of the gross overcapacity of the wastewater plant and overwhelming debt burden, this leads to an assessment based approach. Why base a fee on usage for that capacity that will not be used, even at full island buildout? What we currently have is a front loaded usage based revenue scheme in an environment where vacant lots are growing in numbers; further exacerbating and burdening the user class.

And yest, it is a money grab by the city, but it now has its hand in everyone's pocket. No special exemptions.

But this is nothing new. Vacant lot owners have always paid for services they do not use. Consider how your ad valorem taxes pay for other services that vacant lot owners do not use. But the potential to use is still assessed. When was the last time a safety officer was called to your lot to review illegal activity. Or perhaps protection services are required to serve fire and safety needs on a sandy or mowed lot, a 80 x 100 sized lot. You have been paying for that as well, but I sense no outcry.

The city screwed up big on this waste-water debacle, and we must all be assessed for capacity that is not and will not be used. In that sense we are all of the same usage classification: those that will not use what is now deemed excessive and over capacity. Or maybe we are a new class: Reserve class.

Beware of in believing usage fees as the simple answer to providing revenue for capital improvements. In that world, the city would then have to charge exorbitant rates for usage only. Opps, that is where we are now.

So in this age of personal fiscal reality, foreclosures have created quite a cottage industry, home demolition and the proliferation of vacant lots.

The lot owners, both those with and/or without improvements which includes homeowners, are all assessed. Even the review by the UAB requested the debt burden be shared by all, was in fact, assessing vacant lot owners by their own analysis.

Or did I miss something?

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