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City torn asunder: UEP pits Cape’s north against south

By Staff | Jul 18, 2009

After endless debate, countless public meetings, and numerous votes (both for and against), the final vote on the next two phases of the contentious utilities expansion project will be held Monday.
The Cape City Council will decide the fates of the $200 million plan to bring water utilities to the area north of Pine Island Road, known as North 1-8, and the $87 million plan to bring water, sewer, and irrigation utilities to a section of the Cape known as Southwest 6/7.
The debate over the UEP has raged for more than a year, but the rhetoric of those opposed to the project was ratcheted up this week, culminating in a protest rally in front of City Hall Monday and a special meeting Tuesday called by council members to hear public input on the project.
At both the protest and the special meeting, residents of SW 6/7 and North 1-8 spoke out against the added assessments — which average $17,000 in SW 6/7 and $6,000 in North 1-8 — they face during an already distressing economic time.
It’s unclear how much of an impact the outcry from citizens will have on the final UEP vote, but at least one council member has changed his mind on at least one part of the project.
“I’m a ‘no’ on the north water,” said Councilmember Eric Grill, who had previously voted in favor of the North 1-8 project.
Grill said he originally brought the project back after it stalled earlier this year to prevent an unnecessary rate hike on current utilities customers who have already paid or are currently paying their assessments.
Utility rates are scheduled to increase 92.5 percent over the next five years beginning Oct. 1 if the council votes against both UEP projects. That would boost the average monthly rate from $81.97 to $157.79. Even if both SW 6/7 and North 1-8 are approved, however, utility rates are scheduled to increase 47.6 percent over five years, raising the average monthly rate from $81.97 to $120.99.
But now Grill is looking for a compromise solution, one that calls on the entire city — ratepayers and non-ratepayers — to help pay for the $140 million in debt associated with a reverse osmosis water plant on Kismet Parkway, one reason given for the rate increase.
“This plant is a whole city issue. The way this thing has been blown out of proportion has put ratepayer versus nonratepayer,” Grill said, adding that he will discuss his proposal more in-depth Monday with his fellow councilmembers.
Other council members, however, were not swayed by public rebuttal of the UEP this week, pointing to less vocal communications in favor of the project.
“We certainly have been getting a ton of e-mails in support of the UEP,” Councilmember Gloria Tate said.
Councilmember Tim Day, who voted for the North 1-8 portion of the UEP in February before reversing that vote a week later, said he didn’t understand how stopping the project would affect current ratepayers.
“It does seem unfair to spread this out on ratepayers who’ve already paid. I realized that was the wrong thing to do,” Day said.
And while the poor economy is cited as by those opposed to the UEP as the main reason to stop the project, it also means the cost of the project — and the assessments — are lower than they have been in years.
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to get it lower than what it is,” Day said.
Two council members who have been consistently opposed to the UEP, Pete Brandt and Bill Deile, were similarly unmoved by the recent furor over the project.
“It’s going to ruin a lot of people’s lives,” Brandt said.
“I’m against the way we are approaching it and I’m against the way we’re paying for it,” Deile said.
Monday’s meeting will be held at council chambers in City Hall, located at 1015 Cultural Park Boulevard. The meeting will begin at 4:30 p.m., but chamber doors will open at 3:45 p.m.
Those attending the meeting will be subject to search, and the city is asking visitors to leave unnecessary bags or purses at home or in their vehicle to accommodate the crowd’s entry into council chambers.