Council Discusses Stormwater Utility Fee

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The proposed fee for the new stormwater utility was the biggest topic of conversation at the Fort Myers Beach Town Council workshop on Monday afternoon, where council weighed residents’ concerns about the fees against the urgency to do something about a problem that has plagued the island for many years.

 During public comment, Mike Baker, who indicated that he is speaking for a group of island property owners, said that – based on the figures he and his group have been researching for the planned stormwater utility – an average cost would be closer to $46.50, not $26, per Equivalent Stormwater Unit (ESU).

 “I cannot stress strongly enough how concerned we are with these costs,” he said. “We have approached an attorney to represent our interests if need be.”

 Jack Green said that – when he was Public Works Director – stormwater management was ‘his mantra’.

 “We’ve got one main road that everyone uses, and most of our issues are at the confluence of that road and the side streets,” he said. “I honestly believe that every property owner should pay at least a base fee. I understand that Bay Beach takes care of their own stormwater, as do other condominiums, so they need to be assessed a little more acutely. As far as assigning a fee, if the voters see fit to amend the charter to allow us to borrow long term that fee would go down.”

 John and Jean Kakatsch passed out photos of the flooding that occurred on Dakota Street during the storm on January 15th.

 “One of the reasons this street floods frequently is the elevation of Estero Boulevard, and the other is that the culverts and ditches along Dakota and Palmetto aren’t functioning,” Jean said. “We are concerned that this flooding may bring disease to this neighborhood, and one neighbor has found two water moccasins floating on the water. We ask that the Town work to keep those culverts cleaned out.”

 Public Works Director Scott Baker said that last weekend’s event actually involved only 3.5 inches of rain.

 “We are not building a Cadillac system, we are building a system designed to handle common rain events like the one we just had,” he said. “With this we can take the water running off from Estero Boulevard and take care of it.”

 Baker pointed out that the new shell lot being built at 216 Connecticut worked perfectly, as did the newly built stormwater systems on Mango and Del Mar – both streets that used to flood frequently.

 Administrative Services Director Maureen Rischitelli said that what staff is working on this year is based on reports from 2005 and 2009.

 “We’re trying to put numbers utilizing a formula so that we do the same system on each street which may not be what needs to happen,” she said. “We built this on the highest level with the goal of getting those numbers down. Currently, the Town spends $50,000/year from the general fund on operations and maintenance (O&M) of existing systems. The current estimate for Fiscal Year 2015/2016 is $100,000 for O&M, $400,000 for a vactor truck and $150,000 for general administrative first year expenses, totaling $650,000.”

 Maureen said that if the recommended assessment of $26.50 per ESU is collected, the Town will get $1.1 million in 2016, and $1,686,672 million in FY 2016/17, which would cover the Town’s debt, O&M costs, stormwater facility plan and provide a reserve on which to build for obtaining financing.

 “Borrowing $30 million at 2%, with no closing costs means the Town would need to pay approximately $1.836 million/year in debt service, and $1.134 in O&M for the first five years, which – when divided by 5,304 ESU – equals $46.67 per month,” she said. “This would be the cost if all the streets on the island are done at a full level of service – like we did on Del Mar. Recognizing that it will not be necessary to do everything at that high of a level, Council has asked us to look at the $26.50/month figure while it determines what the needs are for the Town.”

 Jim Steele said that – if the Town Charter is amended to permit long term financing – the Town could realize substantial savings by locking in long-term State Revolving Loan Fund rates while they are still low. He has suggested that the Town adopt a stormwater plan for the areas that need it the most rather than the entire island.

 “I recommended that Council adopt a fee $19.98/month per ESU, which would pay off what the Town owes by 2017, and provide for O&M expenses and the facilities plan with a bit leftover,” he said. “During 2016, Council could finalize the facilities plan, review alternative revenue sources, apply to the SRLF and evaluate the implementation of a revision to the stormwater fee. You have to repay that $2 million loan, then determine the level of service that’s affordable and best serves the Town and its residents.”

 Vice-Mayor Dan Andre said that Council had decided on a middle level of service.

 “For two years now, we have been trying to get the Florida Legislature to agree to let small towns pass a 1% sales tax increase to pay for infrastructure,” he said. “I’d like everyone to email their congress people to tell them we want our visitors to help pay for our infrastructure that they use.”

 Councilwoman Rexann Hosafros said her position – that the Town move forward with the $26.50 amount – remains unchanged.

 Mayor Anita Cereceda said that Town staff has done little else but research stormwater for a long time now.

 “Maureen is looking at the big picture, but once shovels are in the ground things may change,” she said. “This also illustrates how important the charter amendment really is. I’d like to look at the document and more clearly define what our scope is going to be.”

 The mayor said she likes Steele’s suggestion, as did Stockton and Andre, but Maureen said that number would only pay back the debt, not allow for the Town to borrow money for the rest of the utility.

 “Our goal is to look at this year after year, as we are constantly looking at grants and other sources for funding,” she said. Council then reluctantly agreed to allow staff to proceed with the $26.50 proposal. They will make a final decision at their meeting on Monday, February 1st. Residents interested in seeing exactly what they will be assessed can go to the Town’s website at www.fortmyersbeachfl.gov and look for the link on the home page.

 Next, Environmental Technician Rae Blake gave a presentation on the Town’s Beachscape Program – which encourages beachfront property owners to plant dunes and vegetation.

 “Why do we need dunes? They increase protection from storm surge and erosion, because the vegetation are able to retain sand through their root structures,” she said. “They also give privacy, as sea oats can prevent beach walkers from peering into homes.”

 Blake showed slides depicting areas of the beach where vegetation has caused sand to accumulate as much as 16 inches.

 “Interested property owners can enter into an agreement with the Town that would allow the Town to act as an agent working with the Department of Environmental Protection in order to obtain permitting for the dunes,” she said. “As far as the vegetation, the Town can assist in the purchase of the plants, with the preferred species being Florida natives like sea oats, dune panic grass, dune sunflower and dune morning glory – railroad vine – that feature big purple flowers.”

 “We have a number of dune styles to offer – from sea oat dunes, which are the tallest to our lowest which is mostly panic grass,” she concluded. “They only need minor irrigation, and trimming and raking is allowed within certain conditions – as is dune height modification so long as the dune remains at least 18 inches tall.”

 Keri Hendry Weeg