BONITA SPRINGS — Rumors of a special sewer fee have been looming over residents near the defunct Bonita Springs Golf and Country Club for years.
Now Bonita Springs Utilities says it’s time to pay up for improvements made to the community’s wastewater system.
The utility company received approval from the Bonita Springs City Council on Wednesday to assess each home served by the Golf and Country Club system a $3,365 fee. Condominium owners will pay $2,692, with a due date of Sept. 1.
Payments also may be spread over 25 years at a 6 percent interest rate, which would double the total.
Some residents — many of whom were not aware of the sewer problems when they purchased their homes — want to know why the utility company didn’t address the issue years ago.
The utility company has spent $3.7 million improving the dilapidated system, which it purchased in January 2003 after the independent sewer package plant was unable to make improvements and fell into foreclosure, BSU Executive Director Fred Partin said.
“We eliminated a potential pollution source for an antiquated system,” Partin said. “Even though it is a bitter pill to swallow, the fact is, they have a good system in there now. They really need to pay their fair share like the residents in other areas have.”
Angry and concerned homeowners packed the council chamber Wednesday, asking why the utility waited so long to charge the assessment since ownership has changed for many of the residences.
“They should have done the assessment five or six years ago,” said council member John Spear, whose district includes about half of the homes in the assessed area. “Most of the people in there were more recent buyers, and they had no idea this was coming down the pike. How BSU handled it was simply deplorable.”
Prior to the council meeting, the company issued a statement outlining its “list of excuses,” as Partin said it’s been dubbed. The project was complex, including a mix of failing collection systems, septic tanks and undeveloped areas. Adding to the difficulty was the local housing boom, which forced BSU to focus on multiple capital improvements and expansions, followed by the subprime mortgage crisis.
“It’s been a difficult project,” Partin said. “I’m thankful we’ve reached the end. It’s not one I’m proud of, but we did the best we could in that period of time.”
After all this time, no one should be surprised by the assessment, he said, citing numerous meetings held with homeowners when the system was purchased. The special assessment will be charged to 17,085 current and planned residences served by the system, he said.
Patrick McDonald, a Sandy Hollow resident who spoke out against the assessment, said he hasn’t seen major improvements to his neighborhood’s wastewater system and doesn’t want to pay for the utility company’s poor business decisions.
“I’m 77 years old, and I live on Social Security,” McDonald said Friday. “When I got the letter, I thought it was a scam. It is a scam, but it’s a legal scam. It’s a mess.”
Partin said the money collected from the special assessment not only will help recoup past expenses but will be used to fund an additional $1.8 million in future improvements.
Homeowner Jane Scroggs does not dispute the necessity of sewer improvements, but she would like to see another payment option. Shelling out $3,365 would be a hardship, but Scroggs is even less fond of spreading payments over 25 years with a lien being placed on her home.
“We have excellent FICO scores, and I don’t intend to let a utility assessment ruin that,” she said.
Scroggs asked BSU representatives to consider allowing homeowners to make interest-free payments for two or three years, charging interest only if the balance is not paid by a specified deadline.
“It just seems there should be some middle ground,” said Scroggs, who purchased her home in 2004 without knowledge of the looming assessment.
Partin said the company’s board will consider alternatives, but he expects the Sept. 1 payment date to remain.
Spear commended company officials for admitting their shortcomings and said voting against the special assessment would only cause the utility to spread costs among all its customers.
“It would have made the neighbors feel better, but it would not have been fair to the rest of the community,” he said.