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Special UEP meeting Tuesday

By Staff | Jul 11, 2009

The next chapter in the long-running utilities expansion project saga will be written in the next two weeks.
The UEP has become a bogeyman for many residents who live in the project’s new phases, SW 6/7 and North 1-8, who face assessments and fees of $17,000 and $6,000, respectively. The SW 6/7 area is poised to receive water, sewer, and irrigation utilities while the North 1-8 area will only receive water utilities.
At meetings this week designed to provide information on payment options, some residents shouted obscenities at city staffers with many more voicing their anger at the prospect of more bills during an abysmal economic period.
In a memo to council members this week, Councilmember Bill Deile suggested installing a metal detector in advance of a special meeting on the UEP, to be held Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the First Baptist Church of Cape Coral. Mayor Jim Burch has called a closed-door meeting Monday to discuss security issues, but said it will deal with more than just the Tuesday meeting.
“About one year ago we had the same type of discussion (about security). There are staff members and others who voiced concern that we revisit all that,” Burch said.
An initial proposal to move forward with the UEP in North 1-8 was passed by the city council on Feb. 3, but rescinded a week later when Councilmember Tim Day, whose District 6 encompasses the North 1-8 area, responded to a public outcry from residents there.
That is unlikely to happen this time, however, as Day is resolute in his support of the project.
“You can stop the utilities, then the ratepayers will have to make up the difference. That really is an unfair option,” Day said.
“Right now, stopping it is not an option unless you have some mythical option to pay the debt,” he added.
The stalled project was brought back on the council’s agenda because of the looming rate increase that awaits the 53,000 current customers of city utilities on Oct. 1 if the UEP does not move forward at this time.
Utility rates, which were already scheduled to increase 47.6 percent over the next five years, are now slated to jump 92.5 percent over the next five years, increasing the average bill from $81.97 to $157.79.
Despite the public repudiation of many residents in SW 6/7 and North 1-8 over the past two weeks, council members say many Cape residents are also in favor of the project.
“I’ve gotten a multitude of e-mails from the other side. Many of them don’t want to come to the (Tuesday) meeting because they were afraid they would be shouted down,” Councilmember Dolores Bertolini said.
The increase was approved by council members to prevent a default on water and sewer bonds associated with the project. Should the UEP progress, councilmembers have pledged to rescind the rate hike.
The multiple votes for and against the UEP by the city council make the final vote on July 20 nearly impossible to predict, but one person who won’t be voting on the city’s most controversial issue is Burch.
He has consistently abstained from voting on the North 1-8 portion of the UEP, citing design work his company, DRMP, did on the project. In the most recent vote on SW 6/7, however, he also abstained, despite previously voting in favor of the project.
“I want to take my involvement entirely out of the political landscape,” said Burch, explaining that City Attorney Dolores Menendez agreed with his decision to abstain.
“The appearance of a conflict of interest is there as it was in North 1-8,” he added.
But Burch’s abstention isn’t preventing him from speaking out in favor of progressing with the UEP.
“I don’t want anybody to think I’m trying to skirt an issue. The UEP as we sit right now I don’t think we have a whole lot of choices,” Burch said.
Day said the payment options, which allow SW 6/7 residents to put off payments until 2011 or later and North 1-8 residents to put off payments until 2012 or later, and the lack of viable alternatives leaves the council little choice but to approve the project.
“Having those (payment) options is the reason we’re willing to go forward with it. We’re out of time and out of options at this point,” Day said.