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UEP angst continues to fuel protests

By Staff | Aug 17, 2009

The controversial utilities expansion project is an issue that won’t go away and, apparently, neither will the UEP protesters.
Opponents of the project dominated a weekend town hall meeting and they plan to protest Monday before the 4:30 p.m. Cape Coral City Council meeting.
About 100 property owners attended a voting meeting last month and persuaded council to halt the next two phases of the UEP on July 20.
But the SW 6/7 portion of the project was brought back for reconsideration one week later and council members are again scheduled to vote on water, sewer, and irrigation utilities for the 6,200 residents in SW 6/7, this time on Aug. 31.
“They are bringing it up for a vote for the fifth time and people still can’t afford it,” said Greg Callen, a northwest homeowner and father of one who plans to attend the 4 p.m. protest Monday. “Nothing has changed. It’s the same wrong solution to the same wrong problem.”
Callen, who works in construction, said neither he nor his parents, who are homeowners in SW 6/7, are against utilities. They are, however, opposed to going forward now, in the midst of a deep recession, and they are opposed to the fees they say have been tacked on by the city.
“The biggest reason is the 14.5 percent interest rate,” Callen said. That’s just absurd.”
The rate, a particular sticking point among those who would need to finance the average $17,000 per home cost, includes a 5 percent “administration fee” on top of interest to be charged by the city for either paying over time or deferring payment.
UEP opponents also had the opportunity to vent their frustrations Saturday at a town hall meeting hosted by Councilmember Pete Brandt, himself a vocal opponent to the UEP.
The prevailing view?
Don’t go forward with the utilities expansion project, and don’t approve the 85 percent increase in the property tax rate as is being considered.
That was the twin mantra from the majority of the 150 people at Brandt’s meeting at the Cape Coral Library.
Brandt spoke for 25 minutes before taking questions and comments from the audience, decrying the debt-laden UEP and touting his efforts to lessen the proposed increase in the tax rate.
“This is a debt that’s been incurred because of poor judgement,” Brandt said.
The debt associated with the UEP has put councilmembers — and residents — between a rock and a hard place.
When the bottom fell out of the housing market, the Cape’s growth slowed to a crawl. Combined with subsequent foreclosures, projections of new customers to the utility system were rendered useless.
Now current utility customers, who have paid or are paying their assessments, face a rate increase of 92.5 percent over five years.
But opponents of the UEP say it is the worst possible time to move forward with the project, the next stage of which will bring $17,000 in fees and assessments to 6,200 residents in SW 6/7.
Residents at Brandt’s meeting also had other problems with the timing of the project.
“Why can’t we delay 6/7 until after the election?” asked Pete Bukowlski, a northwest resident.
Councilmembers are slated to vote on SW 6/7 Aug. 31; no new vote has been scheduled for water-only utilities for North 1-8, which are estimated to cost property owners with 10,000 square feet of property — an average building lot — $4,800.
Four council seats — the mayor and districts 1,4, and 6 — are up for grabs later this year.
Only two incumbents — Mayor Jim Burch, who has abstained from UEP votes, and District 4 Councilmember Dolores Bertolini — are seeking reelection.
Primaries will be held Sept. 15 and the general election on Nov. 3.
Brandt told residents he attempted to get an 8.2 millage rate when council members set the tentative millage rate earlier this month but could not get the support needed. Councilmembers instead opted for an 8.8241 tentative millage rate, or about $8.82 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value.
City spending needs to be curtailed, Brandt said, but admitted cuts won’t greatly affect a resident’s tax bill.
“I hesitate saying this, but only 27 percent of your tax bill comes from the city,” Brandt said.