Newly elected Marco Island councilors set priorities: state funds, water quality, development

Newly elected Marco Island City Councilors: Richard Blonna, Joseph Rola, Vice Chair Jared Grifoni and Becky Irwin.

The newly elected Marco Island city councilors have set their priorities after winning the election last week.

Five candidates ran for four council seats with the top four vote-getters — incubment Jared Grifoni and newcomers Becky Irwin, Joseph Rola and Richard Blona — winning seats. 

City Councilor Greg Folley was automatically elected for a two-year term after he ran unopposed.

Grifoni said councilors must soon decide what bills they want its state delegation to push forward in Tallahassee. 

"We want to make sure the council has an opportunity to comment on that and to put together a list of priorities that will benefit the city of Marco Island and articulate that to state representatives," Grifoni said. 

Every year Collier County leaders meet with state legislators to ask them to advocate for state money to fund local projects.

In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a $650,000 appropriation for the replacement of Marco Island's main fire station. DeSantis cut $1 billion in state spending due to the state's expected economic hit from the COVID-19 virus, resulting in a $92.2 billion state budget for fiscal 2020-21.

Two other appropriations to improve water quality in the city's canals never reached DeSantis' desk.

Appropriations for the San Marco Road tide leveling/flushing improvements and a nutrient source evaluation and assessment project totaling more than $1 million died in the House Appropriations Committee in March. 

The Collier County legislative delegation meeting is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 4 at North Collier Regional Park, according to Florida League of Cities' website. The deadline for submitting local bills to the delegation is Nov. 20.

"We have only one opportunity every year," Grifoni said.

Marco Island City Council Vice Chair Jared Grifoni speaks during a council meeting on Oct. 19, 2020.

More:New Marco Island City Council to select leadership roles, fill Rios vacancy

And:Irwin, Grifoni, Rola, Blonna win Marco Island City Council seats

The councilors said another priority is improving water quality in the island's canals.

In January, City Council approved a contract for the first phase of a study to evaluate and assess the source of nutrients affecting local waterways after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection put the city on notice last year that its waterways are impaired and in need of a corrective plan.

The water quality engineering firm Environmental Research and Design will submit a draft of the study to the city in March or April and submit a final report in August or September, said Jason Tomassetti, the city's stormwater engineer.

Rola said before the election that the city should restore the swales to improve stormwater retention and filter nutrients in stormwater before it gets into canals.

Grifoni said at the time that he wants the city to continue to pursue state funding for the San Marco Road tide leveling/flushing improvements.

He also said he wants the city to start an “adopt-a-canal” program similar to the volunteer-based adopt-a-highway cleanup programs.

Blonna said at the time that the city needs to "rigorously enforce" its existing stormwater and fertilizer ordinances, and Irwin said the city, government agencies and residents should work together "to ensure that locally we are not contributing to the pollution with excess nutrients and waste."

Marco Island City Councilor Becky Irwin

Irwin told the Eagle last week that she will research the possibility of using oysters, clams and other shellfish to remove excess nutrients from city waters.

Nitrogen is a nutrient for plants and animals, but too much can boost the growth of algae, which can reduce oxygen levels in the water, according to the website of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean research.

Oysters, clams, and other shellfish are "filter feeders" that help remove excess nitrogen from waters by incorporating it into their shells and tissue as they grow, WHOI wrote in 2018.

This method is already being implemented in some parts of Florida. For example, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of Florida are working on a project to breed, raise and deploy millions of clams to clean up the Indian River Lagoon on the East Coast, the USA TODAY - Florida Network reported in January.

Marco Island City Councilor Richard Blonna attended a meeting on improving the tidal flow of Tigertail Lagoon in the Marco Island Library on Sept. 18, 2019.

Another priority for some councilors is development and planning. 

Blonna said last week that he wants to create an ad hoc "business development and redevelopment committee" to look for ways to promote "smart business growth on the island" and evaluate what business owners need and what businesses residents want.

"As our business community ages, and structures are torn down, what do we want them replaced with?" Blonna said.

Rola said last week that he will evaluate a report about the city's comprehensive plan, a document that includes the principles and guidelines for the economic, social, physical, environmental and fiscal development of the city. The plan, required by state law, is updated every 10 years.

In March, City Council approved a $74,623 contract with Florida Gulf Coast University for Phase One of the update to the city’s comprehensive plan. Phase One included research, community meetings and report with recommended changes to the plan, according to a city report.

Marco Island City Councilor Joseph Rola speaks during a Planning Board meeting on August 2, 2019.

Last month, City Council approved a $65,299 contract for Phase Two to include a draft of the amendments, input from city officials and the public, and coordination with the state to adopt the amendments.

"I'm very concerned with controlling density on the island, and definitely controlling intensity," Rola said. "There is so many cars and so many people that you can fit on this island, and we have to take it to good heart to look at what kind of development we want to have over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years." 

Folley said one of his priorities will be to assist city staff in contract negotiations with the police and fire unions which will begin sometime next year.

"I just want to make sure that we come through it in a manner which enables us to be competitive, attracting the personnel we need and fairly compensate our people, while at the same time making sure that we don't put the city in short-term or long-term financial difficulty," Folley said.

But keeping up with competitive salaries for police and firefighters is not the only thing Folley will keep an eye on, he said.

"We had some arbitration decisions which required us to (reinstate) some people who I think is a mistake to put back on the payroll," Folley said.

Marco Island residents elected Irwin, Grifoni, Rola and Blonna as council members, preliminary poll results show.

Irwin led with 7,560 votes, or 23.1%, followed by Grifoni, the only incumbent on the ballot, with 7,422 votes, or 22.7%.

Rola received 6,853 votes, or 21%, and Blonna got 6,739, or 20.6%.

Phares Heindl, a fifth candidate, lost after receiving 4,120 votes, or 12.6%.

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