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Another UEP vote set for consideration

By Staff | Aug 1, 2009

By GRAY ROHRER, grohrer@breezenewspapers.com
It’s a familiar refrain for Cape Coral: the City Council will once again vote on water, sewer, and irrigation utilities for Southwest 6/7 on Aug. 31.
The vote will be the council’s fifth on the project in little over a year.
Council members have voted for and against the project in response to varying pressure from residents, upset at the prospect of $17,000 in assessments and fees during a hazardous economic time.
While the UEP is easily the city’s most contentious issue, supporters and opponents do agree on one thing — the council’s oscillation on the project helps no one.
“The problem is the city sets forth a plan and then they don’t stick to it,” said Councilmember Bill Deile, who has been a steadfast opponent of the UEP.
“People can’t plan when you keep changing the plan,” he added.
“It’s never good for an elected body to continue to reverse votes. This has been going on too long,” said Mayor Jim Burch.
Burch has consistently abstained from voting on the North 1-8 portion of the UEP, and decided this year to abstain from voting on SW 6/7 after voting for it last year.
“It’s the same as North 1-8. I don’t want the appearance of a conflict of interest. I didn’t want there to be another reason out there for stopping this,” Burch said.
In the most recent round of votes, council members voted 4-3 on June 8 to continue with the SW 6/7 project and water utilities for North 1-8.
Councilmember Eric Grill then changed his vote on both projects during the final vote on July 20, concerned about the economic devastation they could wreak on residents.
Fears over the capital facility expansion charge in North 1-8, which allows the city to charge an impact fee to vacant lots even though they won’t receive the benefit of utility service, led Councilmember Gloria Tate to switch her vote.
Councilmember Dolores Bertolini then flipped her vote on the SW 6/7 project after hearing last-minute ideas from other council members on the dais on how to improve the project.
Bertolini brought the SW 6/7 portion of the UEP back Monday, to the chagrin of many council members, even those who support the project.
But Bertolini, a staunch proponent of the UEP before her July 20 vote, said she shouldn’t be blamed for the stalling and on-again, off-again nature of the project.
“This did not start with me, I just got the most publicity on it,” she said.
Councilmember Tim Day brought SW 6/7 back from limbo after changing his mind on the project in August 2008.
After a series of votes in favor of the project in September 2008, Councilmember Eric Grill switched his vote, shutting down the project in October 2008, just days before construction was set to begin.
Council members voted in favor of water utilities in North 1-8 on Feb. 2, but Day reversed his vote again a week later, shutting down the UEP again.
A rate study released by city staffers in March showing a rate increase of 92.5 percent over five years was needed if the UEP did not move forward, to prevent defaulting on bonds related to the UEP prompted council members to bring SW 6/7 and North 1-8 back to the agenda.
Council members then voted in May for the rate increase, which would raise the average monthly utility bill from $81.97 to $157.79 over five years. The increase does not take effect until Oct. 1, when the average monthly bill is set to rise to $103.70.
Many council members who voted for the increase, however, did so with the assumption that the rate hike would be brought down should the UEP move forward. Even if both SW 6/7 and North 1-8 had been approved, rates would have increased 47.6 percent over five years.
Now that the future of both projects is up in the air, council members are scrambling to find ways to reduce the rate increase.
Continuing a trend with the UEP, successful ideas that garner the support of the majority of council members have been hard to come by.
“I’m sure there is (a way to reduce the rate hike). I haven’t found a silver bullet yet,” Deile said.