A burrow for McNees? Council discusses waiving city manager residency requirement

Lance Shearer
City manager Mike McNees discusses his request for a waiver to the residency requirement. The Marco Island City Council met June 7 in council chambers.

Nearing the end of a long meeting on Monday night, the City Council had been discussing gopher tortoises. City Manager Mike McNees recounted how, running along San Marco Rd., he had seen a gopher tortoise trying to cross the road, and stopped to help.

McNees said he had “great affinity for the gopher tortoise,” as they were both moving about the same pace. Hearing the discussion about the problem of sufficient habitat for gopher tortoises being available on the island, McNees said “ I had even more affinity for the gopher tortoise, as  I consider my predicament trying to find a permanent burrow.”

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“What a segue way,” interjected Councilor Erik Brechnitz to laughter. The next item on the agenda was ID 21-1606, discussion of a “Waiver of Residency Requirement for City Manager as Required by the City Charter.”

McNees currently does live on the island, in a condo he bought but only intended as interim housing until he could find a permanent dwelling, for which he has in mind a single family house, to accommodate a household including dogs.

“I am loath to bring … my personal issues” before the council, he said, “but this is one of those things where my personal issues and the city’s issues intersect," adding that the situation had already caused some negativity in the community.

The housing market is so short, and opportunities are so few, he said, he was having great difficulty finding a house. He had made a number of offers, he said, including “a couple of seven-figure offers,” only to be outbid in every case. “You know that seven-figure offers on my salary are not something you do lightly.” McNees earns a base salary of $194,250, up from $185,000 a year ago.

“For the record, I’ve already been a resident of Marco Island for two years,” and had been coming here for decades before that, said McNees. He had spent hours the past two days looking at houses, on Marco Island.

Audubon of the Western Everglades field biologist Brittany Piersma gives a report on gopher tortoises. The Marco Island City Council met June 7 in council chambers.

“Mike has really tried hard to close a deal on Marco Island,” said Brechnitz. “He has offered full list price on a number of homes,” only to be outbid by buyers offering over list. “We’ve had about a 25 percent increase in property values in a heartbeat” – adding that he was “making up these numbers” and not quoting specific price information.

McNees noted that it is allowed under the city charter for the council to grant the manager to live outside its limits, adding he would be looking for homes within a 10-mile radius.

“That increase isn’t 25 percent, it’s 60 percent,” said McNees. “I’d rather live on Marco Island, but I would rather have options if I can,” he said. “You make the rules. You tell me what you want the rule to be, and I’ll abide by it.”

As council members discussed the question, it became clear they thought it was important that, like the councilors themselves, the manager live on the island. No one brought up the idea that, for his sanity and the ability to occasionally leave his professional life to one side, one could make a case for the manager to live anywhere else other than Marco.

Brechnitz floated the idea of providing McNees with an additional housing allowance to ease his search, prompting a demurral. “I didn’t come here to ask for money,” said McNees.

Councilor Becky Irwin, a real estate broker associate, took the opportunity to do an impromptu commercial, telling any potential island single family home sellers they had a motivated buyer in the city manager. She also noted that while home prices have jumped, they are “still climbing back up to their 2004” peak level. “Prices are going up like you wouldn’t believe,” she said.

Brechnitz expressed the concern that if McNees found housing elsewhere and moved off the island, he would never move back. Counclior Clair Babrowski supported the suggestion of a housing allowance. Vice chair Greg Folley, video-calling in remotely, agreed.

After the discussion, McNees opted to continue his search on-island.

“I hear you. I’m going to withdraw my request. I’ll keep working the problem,” he said. The council agreed that McNees and council chair Jared Grifoni would “have a conversation,” and report back. As Irwin pointed out, when it comes to buying residential real estate, especially under current conditions, “time is of the essence.”

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During the public comment period, Christine Donalds noted that many people, including her son, are faced with difficulties finding housing they can afford, and former councilor Howard Reed offered a strong vote of confidence in McNees, saying his compensation – soon to be adjusted – was too low under current real estate pricing.