The Town Council of Fort Myers Beach held a lengthy work session on Monday afternoon, where they heard from local water activists, discussed Council policies and procedures and heard presentations on the Town’s Public Works department, Beach and Street Enforcement and Beach Water.
John Heim of the Southwest Florida Clean Water Movement and former county commissioner Ray Judah each gave presentations on water quality issues. Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane had also been invited to speak, but as he was out of town, his presentation was postponed.
Heim began by congratulating the newly elected council, saying he and the Southwest Florida Clean Water Movement look forward to working with them.
“We are community members first and we understand that without clean water we’re not going to make it as a tourist-based town,” he said. “I encourage everyone to read ‘The Swamp’ to become educated like I did. We’d like to provide information, as one thing as I’ve recognized in my years of water activism is that there is a huge tree called complacency. In the past year, this was forced out of the closet as it happened during season. So there we are, with discharges happening when the tourists are here. What we are asking for is for this council to look into QR codes to be placed at each beach access sign – codes that are linked to sites where people can check and decide whether or not they want to go to the beach. This would be both for residents and tourists – as they are not being informed as to what’s going on. I can assure you from working on the ground level in tourism is that people are saying they’re never coming back because they don’t know if it’s safe for their kids to go in the water.”
Heim compared himself and other water activists to Sheriff Brody in the 1975 film, ‘Jaws,’ who kept warning people about the shark and Council to Mayor Vaughn, who kept insisting the shark not interfere with tourism.
“The shark is the water itself, we cannot ignore it – we are going to be attacked by it if we don’t confront it,” he said. “We don’t want to present ourselves in a negative light, nor do we want to be perceived as that. We want to work with our local politicians. If we don’t address this, it’s only going to come back.”
Judah spoke next. During his presentation, he said Mayor Ruane and the alliance of Lee County mayors are ‘way off course’ in that they are not addressing the ‘only real solution’ – which is to send the water south.
“From what I’ve heard from Mayor Ruane is that the C-43 Reservoir would be beneficial, when nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “C-43 will hold 170,000 acre feet of water which is only a small percentage of what we need, and it also has no water quality component. It will essentially be an incubator for blue green algae, and to put that water back into the river will violate the Clean Water Act and make water quality problems worse. The Alliance needs to focus on the purchase of land south of the lake. Big Sugar controls the District, who backpump into the lake. This has happened for decades, and there is a muck layer of suspended solids that get flushed down the rivers.”
Judah had some criticisms for Central Everglades Restoration Project (CERP) too, saying the data used to come up with the projects recommended for it were based on the driest 30-year period in south Florida history.
“Science will show you that the very basis of the data that was used was flawed,” he said. “The answer is to buy land south of the lake, and all we need is 15% of the available sugarcane land.”
Council member Summer Stockton asked what she – as a council person – could do, and Judah replied work with the Florida League of Cities to get the governor to use Amendment One dollars to prioritize the purchase of land south of the lake. She also wanted to know if the alligator caught in the Gulf last week had anything to do with the water releases, and Judah said no.
Council member Anita Cereceda took umbrage with Judah’s criticism of the Alliance, saying that the mayors absolutely do support sending the water south.
“I wonder why we never talk about the lands north of the lake?” she said.
“The best we could achieve there is 100,000 acre-feet, and it’s too costly to be storing water on privately owned lands,” Judah replied.
Policies and Procedures
During a discussion on Town Council Policies and Procedures, Cereceda suggested that the ‘Council members Items’ section should be limited to reports only – as the public needs to be noticed if its something controversial like moratoriums and storm water.
“The public shouldn’t be surprised,” she said. After Council member Tracey Gore protested that would limit her interaction with Council on topics the public has asked her about. Council member Rexann Hosafros suggested bringing items like those up during Agenda Management so they can be placed on a future agenda where they will be properly noticed.
Mayor Dennis Boback asked about ‘special work sessions’ – in addition to the regularly scheduled ones – suggesting Council return to the round table, one hour, one issue format and not take public comment.
“And they don’t have to be regular work sessions, just whenever we need to kick ideas around about something,” he said. Gore objected to not taking public comment but said she likes the idea of having extra meetings.
Public Works, B.A.S.E and Beach Water
“In total, the Public Works Department consists of 24 full time staff and 8 part time staff who cover Administration, Maintenance, Beach Water and B.A.S.E.,” said Public Works Director Scott Baker. “We maintain all side streets, North Estero, Time Square, all Town Parks, beach accesses, Bay Oaks, Beach Pool, Town Hall and both north and south marina stations.”
Baker explained that – when he was hired in 2009 – Public Works had seven administrative staff members, a number that’s now down to 3.
“When I came here it was top-heavy – we needed more boots-on-the-ground than administrative,” he said. “We reorganized the department and combined environmental science with public works. As far as maintenance, we still have six guys that do stuff like tree trimming, road repairs, trash – we do this 365 days/year.”
Baker explained that Public Works also does all the driveway inspections, seawalls, fences, etc.
“In 2009, they put in two positions that are Public Works but actually work at Bay Oaks – maintaining and chalking the fields and taking care of the buildings,” he said. “We also have Marc ‘Booba’ Hess – who spends 75% of this time in the mooring field.”
There are also five Beach Patrol employees whose salary is paid for by the Tourist Development Council (TDC) – one full-time and four part-time. “Those people are told when hired that – should the funding go away – their jobs will too, unless Council agrees to pay for them,” Baker said.
“When we brought “B.A.S.E. (Beach And Street Enforcement) – in-house in 2015 – we changed to two full time positions and the rest (seven) are part-time plus one on-call,” he said. “ They do sweeps everyday, and they are cross-trained so that everyone knows everyone else’s job. This year, we had them help out with flagging and street-crossing.”
Gore wanted to know if there is an after-hours person people could call for code compliance, and Baker replied that the two full time staff rotate being on-call every other week. That number is 239-463-5888. Scott also noted that the cost for B.A.S.E. – of which 29% is paid for by the TDC – has gone down from $318,000/year when it was a contract service to $289,443 now that it is done in-house.
Baker also spoke about Beach Water, which was brought in-house in 2016.
“The goal was to bring everything to Town Hall, so people could pay their parking ticket, pay their water bill and get a hurricane pass at the same place,” Scott said. “For water, they had 5 employees, but one retired. They not only collect money, they also do minor repairs like fixing meters. They do code red notices.”
In response to a question from Boback, Baker explained that when the Town took Beach Water in-house, there were a number of things that had to be purchased, which raised the first-year operating costs.
Baker presented a vehicle chart outlining each vehicle in the Town’s fleet, and which department uses it. For a total of 23 (with various ages raging from 2002 to 2016), the list is as follows:
Public Works – Eight, including a golf cart, bucket truck and street sweeper (leased)
B.A.S.E. — One golf cart and one truck
Beach Water — Three trucks,
Bay Oaks –Two trucks, one golf cart and one Kubota (large utility golf cart)
Community Development — One truck and one golf cart.
There are four more Kubotas, one golf cart and one truck paid for by the TDC and used for beach cleaning and transportation of materials.
“When B.A.S.E was contracted out, they had vehicles, some of which weren’t labeled so people couldn’t see them,” Baker said after being asked about the size of the fleet. “Ours are all white. The same with Beach Water – now they are marked – and we have 2 maintenance vehicles and one inspection. So we didn’t increase our vehicles – they were here, but no one could see them.”
Gore said she gets ‘a lot of complaints’ about the orange Kubotas, and Baker explained that – during season – it’s nearly impossible to get the job done without them.
Cereceda suggested that Baker consider ‘cross training vehicles’ the same way staff is cross trained, but Baker said that would be difficult as each vehicle is designated for a certain purpose.
Keri Hendry Weeg