MARCO ISLAND — Larry Magel has a short time to get a lot of things done.
With Marco Island’s City Council elections moved to November, his term as chairman will be brief, only nine months long. His first order of business has been an investment in returning trust to City Hall.
“I care a lot about this city and think there’s no place better to live,” Magel said during a recent interview. “When I heard people degrading the city with misinformation, I knew I either had to get the facts out or bite my tongue.”
Magel decided to speak out, visiting local organizations with one message: If you want to be an informed voter, you need to know the facts about the city’s financial health.
“People who say the city is $400 million in debt are not using a fair comparison. When you talk about what you owe on your mortgage, do you include the years of interest you will owe? When you budget, do you show what you owe but ignore the income you have to pay for it?”
In group presentations, Magel delineates the city’s finances using 2011 audited numbers: $12.9 million in general obligation, $179 million in utility debt and $38.8 million in Septic Tank Replacement Program debt that will be repaid by the districts.
“That puts total debt at $218,745,833; not the $400 some people are claiming,” he said.
To look at it another way, Magel compared millage rates.
“Goodland pays 1.72 mils just for fire protection. Isles of Capri taxes itself 2.0 mils for its fire district. Marco Islanders pay 1.89 mils for the entire city and all the services it provides.”
As chairman of the budget committee for the last two years, Magel made a conscious decision not to raise the island’s millage rate.
“I could see the financial duress some taxpayers were under,” he said, “particularly people who moved here 20 years ago, made Marco Island their retirement home and live on fixed incomes.”
He focused on life and safety services within what the city could afford, issues that still have his eye today.
“When we lost our emergency facility I became concerned. We have one ambulance allocated to Marco Island on a permanent basis. I wanted to know what we could do, if anything, to increase medical services.”
Magel and City Manager Jim Riviere plan to open discussions with the county’s two hospital providers to assess whether the island can support a 24-hour-a-day care center.
“We’ll never have a trauma center,” Magel explained. “We understand it’s not cost effective.” There’s a level of care he believes can be an option for city residents.
“My job is to develop the facts and then have the discussion with council and the citizens. It may require going to the voters for a referendum if we need a special taxing district to subsidize it.”
Magel also hopes to find a solution to the city’s utility debt. The idea of pursuing a public-private partnership intrigues him.
“One consultant we had who assessed our utility operation said communities are using these partnerships, and a smaller utility on the East Coast contracted for $50 million.”
The consultant, Gerald Hartman of GAI Consultants, suggested the city consider a public-private partnership conceding operations to an investor while retaining ownership of land and facilities. Operations would be controlled on a contractual basis. He estimated the city could reduce its utility debt by half using the partnership.
“That would mean we could possibly contract for $100 million. It sounds too good to be true but private companies use these contracts to shelter income and protect parent companies – all within the tax codes of this country.”
Last, but not least, Magel said he inherited swale parking as an issue he hopes to resolve in his term.
“We’ve asked the Planning Board to get involved and get back to us in 90 days. I intend to have a workshop with city council because it’s a problem all over the city: At the Esplanade, Old Marco, South Beach and Veterans’ Park.”
It’s a long agenda for a short term, but on Tuesday, Magel seemed confident he could get through it.