Photo by LANCE SHEARER // Buy this photo
MARCO ISLAND — It was the shortest election campaign on record. Within 20 minutes of the start of their meeting, Marco Island’s City Council filled the gap in their ranks left by the sudden resignation of Councilor Larry Magel on Aug. 14.
As the first order of business, Chairman Joe Batte noted the city charter requires only a simple majority vote to fill the position, more than halfway through an incumbent’s term, and opened the floor to discussion.
“I’m looking for council discussion,” he said. Councilor Larry Sacher proposed selecting Planning Commission vice chairman Bob Brown, saying his record with the city speaks for itself, and invoking the important issues looming just ahead for City Council.
“He would be here for the first reading of the budget,” noted Sacher. Councilor Amadeo Petricca moved to select Brown. Councilor Larry Honig urged a “time out,” saying, “I’d like to see a 6-0 vote.” All the council members, he said, had received numerous emails with recommendations or requests for consideration.
“Give people time to send in resumes. We don’t want to move in too rapid a fashion,” agreed Councilor Chuck Kiester. Vice Chairman Ken Honecker said Magel had left when he did so that his replacement could be in place “as soon as possible with a very tight schedule,” for selecting a new city manager as well as approving the budget.
After public comments in favor of Brown, who was out of town, the board voted 4-2 in his favor, with Honig and Kiester dissenting. Brown became the newest council member from that moment, said City Attorney Burt Saunders, subject to sunshine law provisions, although his ceremonial swearing-in will not occur until his first meeting. Batte noted that Brown had been his appointee to the Planning Board, and promised to move expeditiously to fill the vacancy created.
Despite having been in meetings since 10 a.m., when they began a budget workshop, with the council’s budget sub-committee and department heads presenting their recommendations for spending in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, councilors gave a full airing to all the questions presented to them in Monday evening’s regular session. These included action to raise utility rates, reconsider once again the award of contracts for the Smokehouse Bay Bridge, and the prospect of bringing legal proceedings against the Esplanade for not obeying the requirement in their PUD to allow boaters use of the slips at the marina.
Councilors including Batte and Sacher said they really didn’t want to raise utility rates, finding themselves “between a rock and a hard place,” but that is what they voted, however reluctantly, to do. Council heard from bond financing consultant Robert Ori that if the city did not raise water and sewer rates by seven percent, they would be unable to refinance the utility bonds at favorable rates. Usage, he said, had dropped nine percent over the last several years, and rates had not been raised for two years. Without a rate increase to ensure sufficient funds for operations and reserves, rating agencies would lower the grade of the city’s utility bonds, slashing the returns the city could garner.
Honig took the council through a series of charts, a laboriously compiled recitation showing how Marco Island stacks up against comparable Florida cities in its debt load. He concluded that Marco is near the top in terms of debt carried, and that is why water and sewer bills are so high. On utility costs per dwelling, he said, Marco is the highest in the state for “apples to apples” municipalities.
But Honig, too, voted in favor of the rate increase. Only Kiester voted no, asking whether the council was trying to do a rate increase via the back door, and “misleading people on our real intent.” The seven percent utility rate hike passed 5-1.
Council also voted 5-1, again with Kiester dissenting, to once again reject all bids for construction of the Smokehouse Bay Bridge, that had initially been rejected, then seen those rejections rescinded. Staff was directed to ascertain costs for a complete redesign of the bridge, with fewer “bells and whistles” such as the prominent steel arches, but including necessary items like lighting and a comprehensive replacement of the seawall underneath, and provide the best estimate for a serious rehab of the existing bridge, to add five to 10 years to the lifespan of the span.
Councilors voted unanimously to approve a new radio system for first responders and city staffers, after being told by Assistant Police Chief Dave Baer that new Federal regulations, which made the existing radios non-compliant, left the city no choice.
“We absolutely have to do this,” said Baer. City Council will meet again on September 2, with the assignment of setting the millage rate for the coming year on tap.