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UEP moves ahead at heated meeting

By Staff | Jul 25, 2013

Despite contentious debate that included citizens blasting council members and council members blasting each other, the long-delayed Southwest 6&7 utilities expansion project moved forward Wednesday at the first public hearing held at city hall.

Cape Coral property owners also got their first look at the per-property levies that will be assessed to pay for the $102.7 million phase of the near billion dollar initiative to bring water, sewer and irrigation water services citywide.

The numbers – less than $16,000 total per standard residential building lot – are less than projected last go-around when the project was halted due to similar protests and controversy, and lower than any phase since 2002. Taking inflation into account, officials say it’s the lowest per-property rate since the project’s inception.

City council approved three resolutions that establish the terms of the special assessments for construction, capital facility expansion and the cost to hook up.

The votes were 5-2, 6-2, and 6-2, respectively. Councilmember Marty McClain was absent and did not vote on the first ordinance.

Those votes did not come easy and residents made their feelings on the outcome known.

Homeowners screamed at council members on the dais after they approved moving forward and then stormed out of council chambers.

Most of those on council said they did all they could to make the cost as low as possible.

“What more can we do? This now costs less than what some were doing 15 and 20 years ago,” Councilmember Rana Erbrick said. “Some folks think it’s time to move forward.”

An estimated 100-125 residents had waited patiently for City Manager John Szerlag and Business Manager Mike Ilczyczyn to present the numbers to the public.

The project, which will be financed through a state revolving loan at rates of 1.98 percent for clean water and 2.12 percent for drinking water, will cost a homeowner with a 10,000 square foot equivalent parcel $15,411, $15,828, or $24,414, depending on how the levy is paid.

That depends on whether property owners pay in full (and earn a 20 percent discount on the capital facility expansion charge portion of the bill) between Aug. 22 and Oct. 31; pay in full between Nov. 1 and July 31, 2014, or choose the 20-year payoff after Aug. 1, 2014.

The more land a person owns, the higher the UEP charges will be, using the square foot method of assessment.

Construction costs are estimated at a hair more than $10,000, with the full capital facility expansion charge of $6,750. The discount on the latter would bring it down to $5,400.

There will be a hardship program as way to defer some payments, but it will be based on income and you must apply annually.

Once the presentation was finished, the public provided input, with everyone at the podium speaking against the UEP, saying they can’t afford it.

“Why are you doing this? Who do you represent? Can we afford or need it? You aren’t our parents,” John Traube said.

“Will this bring my home’s worth up $16,000? No. My home is underwater,” said Vicki Blanton.

“Government is forcing us to do things we don’t want to do and you’re forcing more of a hardship,” said Paula Gervais. “Do you have a conscience and get a good night’s sleep?”

Perhaps the most impassioned response came from Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz, who for his entire term has objected to the expansion at this time.

“Since Nov. 14, 2011, we have been headed on a course for disaster by moving the UEP forward,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “The average selling price for a lot is $9,000. If you put pipes in for $20,000 do you expect a return on your investment?”

His lengthy speech got a standing ovation, but things got heated when Chulakes-Leetz accused fellow Councilmember John Carioscia of making a rude gesture toward him, moments after Carioscia made a point of order accusing Chulakes-Leetz of campaigning from the dais.

Carioscia’s rebuttal to Chulakes-Leetz’s oratory was a statement for those who have already paid their assessments and are paying higher utility bills as a result of the last council vote to stop the project after a new water plant was built.

“The ratepayers of this town have had it put on their backs long enough,” Carioscia said.

Councilmember Kevin McGrail’s response was equally impassioned, if more restrained, as he explained what he went through in 1995 during his utility expansion.

“I didn’t want it either, but I prepared myself. We did not design this city, the founding fathers dealt us a checkerboard,” McGrail said. “Was I happy about spending $17,000? No. As it turned out, it was a wise decision.”

Erbrick made perhaps the most convincing points as to why it should happen – to help grow business and because state law dictates you must have sewers and city water once you get to a certain population density and that you must include infrastructure as you grow, a state mandate called concurrency.

“This starts to bring the major transmission lines on those major corridors that allow businesses to grow,” Erbrick said. “Southwest 6 & 7 are built out about 54 percent. There are houses being built there. I would like them to know that water and sewer is coming versus digging wells or building the septic field.”

Several residents had to be escorted out as the vote was called, with Mayor John Sullivan and Chulakes-Leetz casting the dissenting votes.

The final hearings on the assessment resolutions come Aug. 21. The project is slated to start in September and last through February 2015.

A website developed as part of the project, www.sw6and7uep.com, includes project history, overview and benefits; maps; public hearing and construction dates; FAQs and more.