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Council approves sewer rate increase by 3-2 vote

By Staff | Sep 21, 2011

While Mayor Kevin Ruane, left, looks on, councilman Jim Jennings, center, receives a plaque from Forrest Banks in appreciation for his four years service with the Southwest Florida League of Cities.

A divided City Council voted to implement a three percent increase in sewer system fees for residential and commercial customers, approving the rate hike by a 3-2 vote. However, a proposed revised rate schedule and three-tier rate structure for general reclaimed water customers was defeated by an identical vote.

On Tuesday, Mayor Kevin Ruane and Vice Mayor Mick Denham cast dissenting votes against Resolution 11-076, which had proposed a monthly sewer system rate of $53.50 (or $160.50 quarterly) per dwelling unit for homeowners, up from the current monthly rate of $51.94.

In addition, commercial customer rates were proposed at $8.04 per 1,000 gallons, with a variety of monthly rates – from $31.08 up to $778.31 – based upon meter size. The resolution also established a connection fee of $3,915.53.

Tara Hollis, environmental group manager with GAI Consultants, Inc., delivered a brief explanation of a sewer expansion feasibility study. Based upon GAIs projections, Sanibel would forfeit upwards of $4.4 million by the end of the State Revolving Fund Loan period paid over 20 years. At the end of her presentation, she recommended that the council follow GAIs proposed Scenario 3B, which assumed the city would not implement a three percent rate increase in Fiscal Year 2012, but would in subsequent years.

However, Ruane and fellow councilman – and financial expert – Doug Congress appeared puzzled by the figures provided in Hollis’ report.

“Seventy-eight pages are great,” said Ruane. “But if we can’t understand it, I don’t know how the public is going to understand it.”

Denham suggested that city staff take “a hard look” at the cost of operating the sewer facility and the opportunity to pay down more debt prior to implementing any rate increase. He proposed lowering the millage rate to accommodate for the $165,000 in revenues gained through the increase.

“That will give us a year to examine how we could lower costs,” he added.

Congress, Jim Jennings and Marty Harrity, however, voted in favor of the rate hike. Jennings noted that the increase showed that the city was “being proactive and responsible,” rather than face the possibility of a larger increase in future years.

“It might be irresponsible of us not to approve this increase,” added Congress.

Later, after Harrity made a motion to approve a revised rate schedule and three-tier rate structure for general reclaimed water customers, which was seconded by Jennings, that resolution was defeated by a 3-2 vote, with Ruane, Denham and Congress dissenting.

In other business, councilors approved a request to bring back a resolution at their next meeting lowering the approval threshold – currently 80 percent – required to consent for the establishment of an assessment district to pave Nerita Street.

In July, Ruane told his fellow council members that he had received a request to look into reducing the required percentage from property owners who live on Nerita Street (11) caused by health concerns and constant pothole repairs of the shellrock road.

According to Gates Castle, director of the city’s Public Works Department, Nerita Street residents have made multiple attempts since 1999 to petition council in favor of paving their street. However, those petition drives have fallen short of the required 80 percent approval of the benefited property owners.

“If the paving of Nerita Street is performed as part of the city’s 2012 Street Resurfacing Project, the estimated cost – including construction, legal, engineering, financial and advertising costs – would be $33,000,” Castle wrote to councilors. “The city would be responsible for $11,000 of the cost, with the remaining $22,000 being assessed to the 11 benefited property owners at $2,000 each.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, councilors mulled lowering the percentage to a simple majority (51 percent), as initially recommended by Harrity. Jennings, however, suggested that a two-thirds (66.7 percent) majority would be “more reasonable.”

After voting unanimously to approve the two-third requirement, staff was requested to draft a resolution to be considered at their Oct. 4 session.

Also, Nancy Fash-McHenry and Richard Johnson, representing Community Housing & Resources, Inc., submitted the foundation’s tenant manual for approval. According to Johnson, the pact was drafted in cooperation with the state’s Fair Housing Committee, volunteers, contractors and conditions established in the Sanibel Code.

Asked to provide highlights of the manual, Fash-McHenry explained that the document addresses tenant sustainability, procedures for transfers, safety guidelines and animal policy. Of the latter, she told councilors of CHR’s no pet rule, although service animals and others approved for companion and therapeutic purposes are allowed by law.

After the council voted unanimously to approve the manual, Congress requested that an overview of CHR’s financial condition, plus a review of their board members and responsibilities, be presented at their next meeting.

Prior to the start of the meeting, Jennings was recognized by Forrest Banks, a councilman from the City of Fort Myers, for his four years of service as a member of the Southwest Florida League of Cities.

“I enjoy working for Sanibel, I enjoy working with local government and I hope to continue to make things better in this community,” said Jennings.