Cape Coral's voter-reconfigured city council voiced commitment this week to restarting the municipality's politically charged utility expansion project.
The opinions expressed during a workshop on the subject Wednesday should come as no surprise. While running, the newly elected members of the eight-person board supported restarting the project halted two years ago after it became an election-year quagmire.
Council has since dithered with the issue through countless unproductive meetings. The only "solution" proffered - and thankfully rejected - has been to somehow rename the impact fee portion of the bill so as to re-assess "infill" lot owners who already had paid their share of infrastructure costs.
The question now is the same one that has gone unanswered since the project was stopped in its tracks - not whether to go forward, but how, when, and at what cost.
Council certainly has a tough task ahead.
Another look at the unfinished portion of the project south of Pine Island Road - SW 6/7 - is a good stepping-off point.
Material costs will be much more competitive than they were at the height of the construction boom. Labor costs will be cheaper.
Developing a palatable payment plan for affected property owners will, of course, be the harder challenge.
So will coming up with an appropriate plan and timetable for the less populated neighborhoods to the north.
There are few easy solutions here as the city found when it:
- Looked at and then backed away from a panic plan to install water only as a way to stave off utility rate increases.
Staff has since conceded such a plan would be an operational nightmare. It seems pipes in little developed neighborhoods in the north Cape would need to be "flushed" regularly, adding significantly to operational costs.
Although a "water-only" plan would have helped pay for the new water plant commissioned and built during the boom, it also would have forced affected property owners into separate, and so more costly, assessments for water and sewer.
Meanwhile, water-only ignored the environmental gorilla lurking in every bathroom - there was no companion plan or timetable to bring septic systems on line.
- Considered and discarded an earlier version of the legally questionable plan to impose an impact fee on undeveloped properties. The proposal would have implemented the assessment not only in neighborhoods where utilities were available, but on undeveloped lots where there were no pipes in the ground - and no plan or timetable to put them there.
Given the project's bumpy history, we suggest a couple of things as council begins to move forward.
One, prioritize the development of a cost/payment component that makes financial sense.
This is key.
The city simply cannot foster another run of foreclosures, cannot afford to have people walk away from vacant properties. Either of these things would not only further depress values, but compromise tax revenues.
Two, carefully address the two components that drive those costs to the individual property owners: Assessment methodology and how the city goes about its installation of the required infrastructure.
The former requires tweaking; the latter may as well.
Certainly an assessment plan that calls for six figure -yes, six figure - levies for rural residential and for churches built on a scant handful of acres is hard to defend as equitable.
That's why these properties once were assessed differently.
These property owners asked the city to review a change in methodology some say was inadvertently made.
They've yet to get that look.
Put it on the list.
And while we agree it's wonderful to get new roads with every mile of pipe, that installation method adds substantially to the cost borne by property owners.
As many have pointed out, it's also a primary reason the Cape's assessments are so much higher than touted comparables.
Maybe including road work with the expansion is still the best and most cost-effective plan for the city long term.
If so, it's not unreasonable to provide some assurance to those asked to bear the cost.
What all this means is that council's very welcome position that it's time to move forward should not be construed as a gun-the-gas green light -it's more a yellow light of caution.
There still is much work to be done.
We are confident this new council is ready to take on the task, and we applaud their willingness to do so.
- Breeze editorial