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Council faces another round in UEP battle Monday

By Staff | Jun 6, 2009

The 6,200 homeowners in SW 6/7 and the 57,000 lot owners in North 1-8 could be facing assessments and fees averaging $17,000 and $6,000, respectively, if Cape Coral City Councilmembers approve a series of resolutions Monday installing water, sewer, and irrigation utilities in SW 6/7 and water utilities in North 1-8 as part of the utilities expansion project.
If passed, the resolutions would prompt the city to mail out notices alerting residents to the impending fees and public hearings to discuss the issue, with a final vote on the project slated for late July. Should the project pass that hurdle, construction could begin later this summer.
In the past year council members have alternated votes for and against the controversial UEP, with some members citing concern the assessments and fees would push more people to foreclosure in a city that was part of the metro area that claimed the nation’s highest rate of foreclosures in 2008.
The result was a stoppage in the UEP, and with no new customers to tie into the system, utility rates — which were scheduled to rise anyway — were bound to jump.
In March, Financial Services Director Mark Mason revealed a study showing rates would need to increase 92.5 percent over five years — raising the average bill from $81.97 to $157.79 — to avoid defaulting on the city’s UEP-related bonds.
Should council members move forward with the UEP, utility rates would rise 47.6 percent over five years, from $81.97 to $120.99.
Council members passed a measure instituting the 92.5 percent increase last month, but the increase is not scheduled to take effect until Oct. 1. Bringing in new customers would lower the ultimate increase.
Councilmember Dolores Bertolini said that after numerous debates and votes, the project should move forward so current customers aren’t faced with greater rate increases.
“If (the UEP) moves forward . . . then we have the possibility of bringing those rates down,” said Bertolini, who is seeking her second term in office.
Further delay on the project will not help the city, she added.
“Is this the worst economy we’ve ever had? Yes. Is it going to get less expensive if we wait? No,” Bertolini said.
But UEP critics say now is the worst possible time to bring assessments and fees on homeowners.
John Sullivan, an outspoken UEP critic, said residents would suffer needlessly if the UEP progress, and the project itself costs too much.
“(Residents) are hanging on by their teeth and fingernails. How could you possibly put more on their backs?” Sullivan, a recently announced candidate for mayor, said.
The city is offering owners of assessed properties the option of deferring payments for 10 years, or financing the payment over 20 years, allowing time for the economic pall to pass. Interest rates, however, would double the overall cost for homeowners.
“That only adds to the problem because it’s going to cost more,” Sullivan said.
Councilmember Eric Grill, also an announced candidate for mayor, is looking to add to the payment options open to assessed properties, floating a proposal last week to defer any payments, including tie-in fees, for at least two years.
That option is not currently part of the resolutions on tap for Monday, but Grill said his focus is on finding a solution to depresses rate increases and mitigates the burden of payments on newly assessed areas.
“The reason I’m bringing it back now is we’ve got to find a middle road. It’s a cliche but we all have to share the burden,” Grill said.