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Weekend town hall meeting tackles utilities expansion project

By Staff | May 10, 2009

The controversial utilities expansion project was the subject of the ire of many of the approximately 100 residents who attended Councilmember Pete Brandt’s town hall meeting Saturday at the Cape Coral Branch Library.
Previous plans to bring water, sewer, and irrigation utilities to 6,200 residents in SW 6/7 would have also brought $17,000 in assessments and fees, and a plan to bring water to the area north of Pine Island Road (commonly known as N 1-8) would mean $6,000 in assessments and fees to the 57,000 lot owners there.
Cape resident Joan Rosen said there were numerous homes in SW 5 that have already been assessed but cannot afford to pay, leaving paying customers in the lurch, and new assessment areas would suffer a similar fate.
“If we go ahead with SW 6/7 and North 1-8 we’re going to have equally as many (that don’t pay),” Rosen said.
Cape Coral City Councilmembers halted the UEP earlier this year, citing concerns that residents would not be able to pay the fees during harsh economic times, despite various deferment programs.
Facing the prospect of a 92 percent increase in utility bills over five years, partly due to the lack of new customers and the debt associated with the project, council members voted last week to restart the project, although a specific plan is yet to be outlined.
Brandt, who cast the only vote against restarting the UEP, said Saturday the project should be stopped, at least until 2011.
“I think the UEP program should be brought to a temporary halt,” Brandt said.
He favors a plan to assess future areas like SW 6/7 and North 1-8 a smaller amount to help offset the costs of the UEP, although residents there wouldn’t begin to receive utilities for at least two years. Some councilmembers, however, say that plan is not legal and the city cannot charge residents for a benefit they are not receiving.
“I think that still needs to be looked at,” Brandt said.
While council members search for a way to solve the UEP puzzle, the rate increase, scheduled to be voted on May 18, needs to be approved to prevent the city from defaulting on its bonds related to the project, Brandt said.
The new rate structure would not go into effect until Oct. 1, and the council can act before then to prevent the hike.
Defaulting on bonds, however, is not an option, Brandt said.
“Anytime you need to raise money it’s going to cost us greatly,” Brandt said when asked about the effects of default.
“The ability to conduct the city’s business is going to be severely hampered,” he added.