MARCO ISLAND — During a three-hour special meeting on Monday, Marco Island City Council and Utility Advisory Board (UAB) members said they want the consulting firm hired to answer more of their questions before setting utility rates for Island residents.
In May, Mike Burton of Burton and Associates reported his findings to council members, suggesting that residents be charged for water and sewer based on usage and capacity. Based on his calculations, many residents would see a decrease in their water and sewer bills, but residents who use more water would most likely wind up with a higher burden. However, Burton also told councilors that he personally favored a “debt service base charge,” or a flat fee, for residents based on the island’s size and seasonal nature.
Councilman William Trotter told the gathering that administering a base charge would be a “fiscally stable” approach and one that is used by many municipalities across the state.
“Were all stakeholders in this,” said Trotter, explaining that because of that, everyone should pay equally.
However, Councilman Larry Magel used the analogy of purchasing a car: One couple might buy a two-seater for their use, while a larger family might require a mini-van. For that reason, he stated, individuals who use more should have to pay more.
Trotter retorted that utility customers are paying for the “cost to serve,” just as a phone customer would still pay a monthly bill even if they did not use their phone during that time.
Other questions council members want the consultant to answer are whether a customer charge of $2 or $3 should be implemented; whether the price of reuse/reclaimed water should be set at least 50 percent of the new irrigation rate; and whether a monthly rate for vacant lots should be charged.
The city’s bond attorney, Mark Lawson, a former Marco Island resident, said charging vacant lot owners for water and sewer usage could provide the city with a much-needed cash windfall. However, Lawson added that if vacant lot owners were to be charged a special assessment, the city could not “double-dip” and charge those owners a second assessment.
Councilor Joe Batte stated concern that asking so many additional questions may give the perception to residents that council is unhappy with the consultant’s report and is manipulating the outcome to meet its liking, although he noted that he does not believe that to be the case.
“We have the tough job to set up policy and taxpayers expect us to set up something that’s fair and equitable” he said.
“We had a professional study by professional consultants,” Batte continued. “This is what these people do. They have credibility and can stand up to legal challenges. This study needs to be our constitution going forward.”
Council chairman Jerry Gibson agreed.
“It’s a good report,” he said. “Anything that we’re asking is just to clarify the report.”
But council and UAB members acknowledged that many residents will be dissatisfied, regardless of the changes made and that local lawmakers will have to deal with perceptions that one group of residents is being favored over another.
Trotter noted that the city’s utility budget is larger than its general fund budget and that the average single family homeowner pays 60 percent more for their water/sewer bill than they do for city taxes. “It’s a big part of our resident’s expense,” he said. For those reason, Trotter believes that it’s imperative for the council take its time before deciding utility rates.
The city will formally pose its questions to Burton and Associates. A date has not yet been set for the firm’s reply.