City Council halts UEP, but controversy lingers
Cape Coral City Council members may have voted to put the much-maligned utility expansion program on hold earlier this month — one week after voting to go ahead with the project — but the controversy surrounding the project to bring water, sewer and irrigation to areas of the city that currently use septic systems lingers.
Speaking Tuesday at a meeting of the Cape Coral Civic Association, Cape Coral Financial Services Director Mark Mason said the onus would fall on the 52,000 current utility customers to pay the $185 million in outstanding debt on the city’s facilities expansion project.
“With very few customers coming on board you end up with the core group taking the burden for the facility expansion,” he said.
Utility rates were scheduled to increase every year for the next five years, even providing for the 6,500 new customers in the Southwest 6/7 area who were scheduled to come online in the past year. But now that the project has been stopped, those rate increases are likely to be slightly higher over the cumulative five-year period.
When and how much rates for current utility customers are going to rise is yet to be determined. Mason’s staff will present a rate study to council members in March.
The last rate study, conducted by Burton & Associates and released in May, showed possible rate increases for different scenarios surrounding the UEP.
In a scenario assuming the UEP progressed with sewer and water utilities as scheduled, rates would increase about 20 percent each year for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Those increases would drop to about 3 percent for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013.
Under this scenario, an average monthly bill of $76.42 would rise to $90.47 in 2009, $107.48 in 2010, $111.34 in 2011, $114.39 in 2012, and $117.54 in 2013.
In contrast, a scenario assuming the UEP did not progress at all showed average monthly rates rise to $89.90 in 2009, $97.83 in 2010, $106.67 in 2011, $116.38 in 2012, and $119.59 in 2013.
During a series of stop-and-go votes in 2008, many SW 6/7 residents pleaded with council members not to go forward with a project that would bring $17,000 in assessments and fees during tough economic times.
More recently, residents north of Pine Island Road also cited economic concerns in protesting a proposal to bring only the water portion of the UEP to the area, which would have carried with it an estimated $6,000 in assessments and fees.
Although city staffers and council members developed payment plans and options to defer or delay payment on the assessments, council members ultimately voted to halt both projects.
Councilmember Derrick Donnell, who has voted consistently to go forward with the UEP, also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. He said he has gained a newfound respect for city staffers and the process to bring utilities to the rest of the city since joining the dais.
“(City staffers) are not just a bunch of overpaid crooks. I can’t believe I’m saying that. You should’ve heard me two years ago,” Donnell said.
He also decried the corrosive atmosphere those on both sides of the UEP issue have brought to council chambers.
“There’s this divisiveness that comes amongst us when it comes to certain issues like the UEP. It really concerns me how we treat each other,” Donnell said.