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Utility expansion assessments approved

By Staff | Aug 3, 2017

City Council members unanimously approved all five resolutions and one ordinance associated with authorizing the North 2 Utilities Extension Project to begin later this month at a special meeting on Wednesday at City Hall.

Property owners in the affected area have packed Council Chambers for meetings related to the project in search of answers and Wednesday was no exception. Citizens stepped to the podium and raised many questions that ranged from the great financial burden to the methodology used to arrive at the assessment numbers, from the higher cost to an oversize parcel with one home on it to payment structure and deadlines. A requirement to pay a monthly fee for services even when the homeowner is only in the home for six months, sometimes less, was another concern.

Mayor Marni Sawicki, who earlier warned the audience about clapping when speakers finished, called a 15-minute recess after a second disruption.

Some of the questions or statements made were erroneous, such as a claim that vacant lot owners are not being assessed, and that gated communities are not being charged.

It was explained that only one gated community is not being assessed because it is private property and the city has no access to the easements within that development. However, if the community approaches the city some day about connection, they then would have to pay established fees at that time.

Vacant lot owners are assessed by the square-footage tier of fees the same as the parcels with homes on them, which are responsible for additional connection and usage charges.

“Let’s face it, utilities are very important for cities,” said Councilmember Jim Burch. “Years ago the city was strongly advised by the Environmental Protection Agency to extend the utilities throughout the city. If we had taken the ‘thanks, but no thanks’ approach you know we would be under much greater pressure today. I feel your pain. I just paid off an assessment of mine and I’ve been here 25 years.”

The utilities assessment and Capital Facility Expansion Charge are broken down into water, sewer and irrigation fees. The three assessments total $12,632 plus the CFEC charge that with a 20 percent discount totals $5,400 when paid before July 31, 2018. Those fees bring the overall cost for individual home owners to $18,032 on a standard 10,000 square-foot parcel.

Burch conceded that the city perhaps could have done a better job of trotting out the project to the public, but that all questions deserve to be answered.

City staff, including City Manager John Szerlag, Public Works Director Paul Clinghan, Utilities Extension Manager Kevin Higginson, Utilities Director Jeff Pearson, Finance Director Vicki Bateman and consulting attorney Chris Roe with the law firm of Bryant Miller Olive provided extensive explanations to all of the questions expressed during the public comment segment.

Roe was perhaps the best at the task of clearly explaining the regulations, methods, rates and reasons for the assessment process.

As he reeled off answers to each question people started leaving the chambers until only a handful remained when the council voted.

Pearson explained why the base rate for services that is charged whether or not the home is occupied, which is unknowable by the city.

“We have to maintain the water pressure at a certain level, we incur costs to do so for chemicals and equipment. Those never go away,” Pearson said. “Our service has to be there and ready to handle that person’s need for water when they return to the home.”

At the end Szerlag said, “If anyone still here has a question specific to their parcel my staff and I will stay after the meeting and answer your questions one on one.”

Councilmember Richard Leon added, “If anyone fails to get questions answered to their satisfaction please, by all means, call or email me or any council member and we will see to it you get proper answers. You may not like some of the answers you get, but it is a necessary and unfortunate (financial) burden. My family has been through it and I understand it.”

The utilities extension has three parts – potable water lines, wastewater lines and irrigation lines – and each required passage of a specific resolution.

The ordinance that was approved Wednesday authorizes the borrowing of money from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s low interest rate State Revolving Fund loan program not to exceed the principal amount of $240 million. That loan initially is expected to be paid back at 2 percent interest or less, which could increase over the life of the loan.

One resolution established the 13 construction contracts. Three contractors hold one contract each and four others have two contract areas of responsibility. Most are local firms while a Naples firm has a contract to build two master pump stations and a second Naples firm is to construct a canal pumping station. Those 13 contracts total just over $226 million, plus city-controlled contingencies.

The final resolution completed the process for Construction Engineering and Inspection (CEI). It covers the original design contract awarded to Greeley and Hansen LLC in May 2015, design and bidding work concluded in March 2017 and final inspection of the construction work. It authorizes all CEI services not to exceed $16.2 million.

Council’s next meeting is Monday, Aug. 7, at City Hall.