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Grill hosts town hall meeting on Southwest 6/7

By Staff | Nov 10, 2008

More than 100 people attended a town hall meeting Wednesday on the controversial utilities expansion project in the Southwest 6/7 area of Cape Coral hosted by City Councilmember Eric Grill.

The project would bring more than $17,000 in average assessments and fees to the 6,500 homeowners in the area.

Many residents have spoken out against the project and the fees in a struggling economy when the issue has come up at city council meetings, and that sentiment was echoed Wednesday.

“We have a lot of people on our block that have lost their jobs or are only working part-time,” said Charlene Campbell, a Southwest 6/7 resident who has consistently spoke out against the project at council meetings.

She said the economy is too bad and people are struggling too much to hit them with the extra costs of the utility project.

“Stocks are down to nothing, you can’t sell them without taking a very big loss,” Campbell added.

Grill called the meeting after changing his vote last week, in what was supposed to be the final vote on the project before construction was to begin.

A supporter of the 6/7 project throughout the year, Grill said he changed his vote after discovering the extent of Councilmember Jim Burch’s firm’s involvement in the project.

Burch is the regional director of land surveying for DRMP, an engineering firm that did $339,000 worth of design work on the UEP in 6/7 before Burch was elected to the dais.

Burch has disclosed his company’s involvement on the project and abstained from voting on a project to bring water utilities to the North 1-8 sections of the Cape.

Not everyone in the audience, however, was opposed to the project. Some said 6/7 would cost less to do now than if it was rebid.

Currently, the construction costs stand at $68 million for the project with a total cost of $80 million, but those in favor of going forward believe the costs will rise in the future as the economy begins to rebound.

Lyndia Bradley, a resident of the Southwest 4 area that is already receiving utilities as part of the UEP, said she understands the economic struggles but wants the project to move forward.

“While you’re saving 6/7, you’re killing 4. You’ll see more houses in 4 walk out,” Bradley told Grill. “(Council) needs to stop playing games with people. You go in a straight line and you do it.”

Proponents of the 6/7 project also point to the city’s 10-year deferment option for residents as a way to stave off the financial difficulty assessments bring for a time.

Opponents, however, say that does not help everybody and will pile up interest payments for people.

“The city doesn’t seem to have any kind of a safety net. This 10-year deferment isn’t going to help people on disability or a fixed income,” said John Sullivan, an outspoken opponent of the project.

Some of the contractors involved in the project and their workers showed up to voice their support of the project, and relay the effect stopping it will have on the local economy.

“I work for one of the contractors. Just with the contractors I know of the number is already up to 400 to 500 people (laid off),” said Thomas White, who works for Southwest Utility Systems, a subcontractor for MWH, the company in charge of the UEP.

“The number is up there and it will continue to rise. They can defer their payments, I can’t defer my house payments,” White said.

Richard Cowart, owner of Southwest Utility Systems, said the impact the stoppage has had on his business is “devastating,” and he has already laid off about 100 employees.

“All of that ($68 million in construction costs) gets circulated in the local economy. All my employees get stuff for their kids for Christmas, they buy groceries here, they get gas here,” Cowart said.

He also said the cost of the project will go up in later years if it is not done now.

“They are getting a hell of a deal with this project. I’ll roll the dice — in two years I guarantee it’s going to cost more,” he said.