STRAIGHT TALK: Placing blame on water problems won't fix them

Steve Stefanides

In January 1998 the newly seated Marco Island City Council began acquiring the assets of the Florida Water Services Company here on Marco Island when it passed Resolution 98-7, which established a feasibility group to study that action.

Fast forward 17 years to 2015 and you find today's council still struggling with the issue of high water and sewer costs, but this time we don't have a demonized company to blame for our situation. Instead, we must look inward to the mistakes of the past as we deal with how to move forward in the future.

With hindsight being 20/20 today, we can all look back on the purchase price of the utility as overpriced and an infrastructure in extremely poor repair. The process that brought us to the eventual purchase was flawed, as it was driven by fear and a lack of knowledge of the system we were trying to acquire.

We compounded those mistakes by our rush into the plans to complete the centralized wastewater treatment system, which had been unceremoniously halted in the late seventies by the Board of Collier County Commissioners. The commission lacked the political courage to move forward to finish the job begun by the Deltona Corp. of providing sewer services throughout the island. That requirement was always part of the development plan for the island, but due to push-back by a vocal special interest group it fell by the wayside and building permits were issued, relying on septic tank installations instead.

After the acquisition of the assets of the Florida Water Services Company by the fledgling city, council announced that they would be looking at the major capital project for completion of the centralized wastewater system. It actually was a twofold project; the first portion was the extension of the infrastructure to service all users and the second portion the project would entail the complete replacement of the old and worn-out facility to process the wastewater from all customers.

The cost of accomplishing this project was undervalued to residents, with estimates of anywhere from $6,000-$8,000 per household. That low-ball price was seen by some as a way to make the project more palatable to those that would be required to hook up to the new system due to the legislative requirements of Florida state statues that required hook-up when the system became available.

The second issue with the process involved what many saw as a calculated plan to exempt any existing users on sewer services from helping to shoulder the burden of the replacement of the now-defunct treatment facility that was more than 30 years old.

This plan would require new users to carry those high costs in the assessment which they would now face. Those cost would average about $19,000 per home for the extension of the system to them, well over the numbers originally quoted to them.

Residents were given three options to deal with the high assessments they were now facing:

• Pay it all at one time and receive a small discount;

• Pay it over 20 years with interest or in total when the home sold;

• Defer any payments for the 20 years and then pay with accumulated interest.

To accomplish this aggressive program the city was required to float bonds (borrow money) to cover the pending construction costs; hence the extraordinary debt coupled with the obligations incurred to purchase the utility two years previous to the launch of what became known as the Septic Tank Replacement Program or STRP.

The debate over the program, its design, the related construction issues and the associated costs has fractured the island politically and socially over the years. Hard feeling and mistrust still run through most discussions on a wide variety of issues.

At a workshop this week, council members continued to grapple with the debate about how to move forward in dealing with future capital needs of the utility. The debate about rates, who pays what and how to move forward are central the discussions. This council and the new city manager have inherited a challenge that will require them to muster political and personal courage.

Yes, there is enough blame to go around, but blame won't fix the issues facing the community. All sides must lay down their swords, put their egos on hold and make every attempt possible to put the past behind us and deal with the substance of the issues before us, rather than try to play the old "gottcha game."

Yes, we paid too much, we made mistakes in the STRP and have failed to be honest with our community. This has caused us to not reach our true potential as a community. However, that was then and if we don't want to condemn ourselves to live in the past, we need to learn from it, as we look to take on these future issues with an eye to fairness and shared responsivity.

These are serious times, and as such will take a serious effort by those we elect to sit in the seven seats on the dais in the council chambers.