Cape Coral City Council will begin a series of workshops Wednesday to address the various issues associated with the city's near billion dollar utility expansion project.
We commend the board for launching these sessions. The workshops will be held the first and third Wednesday of each month until the council is ready to make some decisions - decisions that are both sorely needed and long overdue.
The decades-old expansion project, which was intended to bring water and sewer utilities to the entire Cape by 2017, hit a roadblock the last couple of years with the final component of the "south" expansion - the neighborhoods dubbed Southwest 6/7 - and the north Cape portion, after the economy tanked and residents protested assessment costs. Vehemently.
Faced with packed chambers, sign wavers and protesters, the then-sitting council failed to reach any decision at all. They started and stopped the expansion repeatedly and ultimately raised utility rates for existing customers because those rates were premised on a projected new customer base that was no longer coming on board. That angered a whole new group of residents, those who had paid their assessments and now were looking at steep increases in their monthly bills.
The new council must tackle the work left on the table, made all the more pressing by a pending agreement that will mandate the installation of sewer services in the north Cape once certain density requirements are met.
Among the issues:
- How to pay back the debt for the new $97 million north reverse osmosis water plant built, in part, to service customers in areas of the city where services were to be provided. The city had intended to pay back the debt by completing the expansion in Southwest 6/7 and by bringing water-only to the unserved neighborhoods north of Pine Island Road. The payback is now built into an escalating rate structure for existing customers. Expect rates to be a priority topic at these workshops.
- When and how to re-start the expansion project. The utility project will restart. The question is when. The city is in the process of hammering out a multi-party agreement to get state approval for its removal of the northwest spreader. The Cape Coral North Spreader Canal Ecosystem Management Agreement Process calls for a utility expansion program and, as currently drafted, provides for density triggers for the mandated installation of sewer services. There are neighborhoods that already meet these density requirements. A construction timetable must be addressed.
- Assessment costs and methodology. Most Cape residents agree that water and sewer services need to be provided throughout the city. The stumbling block is the cost of the per property, or "assessments," to pay for that expansion. Those in SW 6/7 said they could not afford levies as high as $10,792 plus another $6,750 in impact fees. Property owners in the north questioned getting hit twice, $6,000 for water-only, and then again when the city comes back and installs the infrastructure for sewer services.
Complicating the matter in the north Cape was a proposed change in assessment methodology. The city proposed for the first time to charge impact fees upfront to unimproved properties - vacant lots - and to assess some property owners in the city's lone area of rural parcels near six-figure assessments. One homeowner was sent a tentative bill of $96,000 for water only for his 11-acre mini-farm with one average-size home.
Both the impact fee -re-dubbed a "reservation fee" or "capacity charge" - and the change in the assessment methodology that was intended to address development parcels but unintentionally changed how rural residential was assessed, became talking points but no decisions were made to address either issue. With two sitting councilmembers, Mayor John Sullivan and Councilmember Bill Deile, suing the city over how the Cape determines assessment costs, how the city charges property owners is likely to be addressed.
This is a pretty full agenda but council should be up to the task. Four of its members have been dealing with these issues for the last two years and the four newly elected members made these issues the forefront of their campaigns.
We look forward to the sessions and we urge council, at its first meeting, to establish a definitive and expedited agenda to get these matters addressed and resolved. Nothing would disappoint the Cape's affected property owners and ratepayers -that's all of us - more than another round of do-nothing, accomplish-nothing debate.
- Breeze editorial