On Monday evening the Marco Island City Council held the second reading of a proposed ordinance to realign water and sewer rates for the Marco Island Utility Department. What started out as "friendly tweaks" to the much-debated ordinance ended up being a heated and somewhat contentious debate on the fairness of the new rate structure.

At the end of the debate, council chairman Larry Sacher would retreat from his support for the new ordinance. This would occur after his being in favor during its creation and at the last public hearing.

When the vote was taken, it was split 3 in favor and 3 against. Kenneth Honecker, Bob Brown and Amadeo Petricca voted in favor while Larry Honig, Sacher and Victor Rios opposed. Councilman Joe Batte is away with his wife on holiday.

The rate present structure will stay in place.

The council did pass a 2.1 percent increase in the base rate for water-sewer users to satisfy commitments made to bond holders about sufficient income for operations of the utility. This increase will also act to satisfy debt and capital expenses.

When the discussions began, they did so with the potential addition of an EDU appeals board, which would allow a user to come forward and appeal his or her rating. That board would be appointed by the City Manager and the suggestion came from staff. A further request came from Sacher, who requested a "hardship" clause be inserted for those not able to afford the installation of a deduct meter that could potentially save that customer from paying for sewer charges when only watering his/her lawn or replenishing pool water.

North Marco Utilities

Honig would begin a discussion about the private utility, North Marco Utilities, which local attorney Craig Woodward and his family run to provide sewer service to customers in the Old Marco section of the island. Woodward's father began the utility to service some of the original commercial and residential customers in that area that was not developed by Deltona.

North Marco Utilities utilizes the city's wastewater treatment facilities, but provide for their own transmission and distribution lines to move that wastewater to the collection intersection near Old Marco Lane and is meter at that point for volume sent to the city's facilities.

Honig's desire was to see the discount being offered to North Marco Utilities be part of the ordinance, rather than come back every year for the 20 percent discount he was seeking to be applied to the billing. The original discount structure was established by Rony Joel, the former public works director, in 2010.

"I just think this would be easier dealt with in this manner rather than by the appeals process," said Honig. Under that process North Marco Utilities would come back each year for the adjustment.

Other "bulk users" such as Island Country Club, Collier County Utilities and Hammock Bay Country Club would be dealt with in a similar manner.

When questioned by Honecker as to whether the suggested amendment by Honig should be considered as a "friendly amendment," (that Honig would be voting to approve the ordinance as a whole if the amendment was adopted), Honig responded he would not vote in favor of the ordinance.

"Everyone on the planet understands I will not vote for this monstrosity," said Honig. "I'm not in the tank for Craig Woodward," he said, in an attempt to distance himself from being seen as structuring a friendly amendment for Woodward's private utility, while continuing to oppose the final rate structure he voted against at the first hearing two weeks ago.

Capital improvement increases

Rios would also oppose the rate structure due to increases in the capital improvements being proposed. He would also oppose the proposal due to the calculations of the low return from the inter-local agreement with Marco Shores. That agreement was part of the original package from when the utility was acquired by the city. The present agreement has Marco Island utility users supplementing the Marco Shores and Goodland users.

Sacher pointed out to Rios that they could not walk away from that agreement without legal consequences.

"We have to get away from that agreement," said Rios.

The debate would then shift to Petricca's presentation of suggestions he wanted to see added to the ordinance.

"This whole ordinance may not fly unless somebody starts considering some of these things I'm talking about," said Petricca.

He was willing to consider a 10 percent discount to North Marco Utility, Collier County and other bulk users of the utility system. He was also seeking an adjustment in the non-potable water sales for irrigation.

"I'm urging us to step back and answer some of these questions," said Honig toward the end of the debate.

Several citizens objected to the new ordinance and urged council to step back and review the proposed amendments and adjustments under discussion.

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