Monday, October 21, 2019

Marco Island: Year in Review

 

 

By Noelle H. Lowery
noelle@coastalbreezenews.com

With 2014 under our belts, it is time to reflect on the year that was (and what a year it was) and the year that will be (high hopes all around).

The city of Marco Island certainly underwent a host of changes and experienced some major triumphs in 2014. Following are the top nine issues Marco Island faced in the last year, according to City Manager Roger Hernstadt, and a peek at what’s to come in 2015.

1.) New City Manager

The city of Marco Island’s four-month tumultuous search for a new city manager — remember the city hired and fired two search firms — came to a close on Monday, Jan. 13, when the council voted 5-0 to offer Hernstadt the position and successfully negotiated and approved his $222,250 compensation package.

“I believe the most important issue (Marco faced) was to find the right City Manager for our city and the council worked very hard and did much research to find the person that would fit our needs,” says Council Vice Chairman Bob Brown. “Mr. Hernstadt proved himself to be a very good choice and quickly became acclimated not only to our city requirements but embedded himself within the community and quickly was a part of our great city.”

Prior to coming to Marco Island Hernstadt spent four years as the city manager for Marathon, FL, ushering the small Keys community into cityhood and helping it with its water utility. Before that, Hernstadt was an assistant city manager for Miami.

Since coming on board, Hernstadt has made great strides in ushering Marco Island into its next stage of civic maturity, reorganizing departments (think Growth Management and Code Enforcement), instituting new policies for working cooperatively (departmental reports during City Council meetings) and tackling the tough questions (remember the Marriott renovation Smokehouse Bay Bridge and Mackle Park referendum).

“I would like to think that the employees are working smarter, more collaboratively,” Hernstadt explains. “The report system with the council is extremely important. The idea that an idea or project won’t advance to council has stopped, and the concept that if we have an idea that is rational, feasible, doable the council will listen to with open, minds, hearts and ears has replaced it…We’ve stop arguing amongst ourselves, and we are getting to the bigger pictures…We are working creatively to find a solution, and making sure whatever (the council) comes up with staff can do in an effective way.”

Council Chairman Larry Sacher believes Hernstadt’s changes are working. “Roger Hernstadt

Roger Hernstadt. FILE PHOTO

Roger Hernstadt. FILE PHOTO

has demonstrated how fortunate we were to attract a professional city manager with 35 years of experience,” he notes. “Consequently, the combination of Roger’s leadership and a council that works very hard, does their homework and is NOT influenced by so-called ‘special interests’ have dramatically improved the city’s operation and the community’s perception of our elected representatives. Marco Island is definitely in a better place today than it was a year ago.”

2.) The Bucket Plan Budget

Marco Island also entered new budget territory this year with Hernstadt’s new “Bucket Plan.” The pay-as-you-go budget earned a green light when city councilors voted 6-1 to approve it Monday, Sept. 22.

“This budget provides a way for the general fund to operate without having to borrow money in the future, as well as paying off existing general fund debt,” says Hernstadt.

Sacher applauds the new budget: “Prior Council’s avoided any long-term plan to retire General Fund debt. We addressed it, and have a plan in place to have the city operating on a pay-as-you-go basis.”

Hernstadt’s overall five-year plan promises to streamline Marco Island’s general fund finances and get the city out of debt while also planning which projects it will tackle, when it will tackle them and then saving for them. The city’s debt includes $150 million in water and sewer debt, $18 million in debt on the city’s general operations side — which includes $1.3 million in interest on the bank loan for the Smokehouse Bay Bridge project — and the $5.5 million in unfunded pension liabilities. The city also has a list of 116 items totaling $31.9 million in major capital improvement, infrastructure projects and equipment replacements the city is facing over the next five years.

In order to make it happen though, City Council had to approve a a 7.85 percent millage rate increase over the city’s aggregate ad valorem taxes based on the city’s rollback rate and a conservatively projected increase in Marco Island property values. Essentially, this amounts to an extra $60 in annual property taxes for a home valued at $500,000 every year — just an extra $5 per month and still keeps the total annual municipal tax bill under $1,000 per year or $85 per month. For FY2015, the approved budget totals $22 million based on a 2.507 overall millage rate.

3.) Approval of Marco Island Marriott Renovation Project

Monday, June 16, was a red-letter day for the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort. After months of public debate, discourse, town hall meetings and countless letters to

Larry Sacher. FILE PHOTO

Larry Sacher. FILE PHOTO

the editors of all local newspapers, City Council provided final approval for the resort’s $150 million renovation plan.

The plan seemed simple enough. Marriott officials just wanted to reconfigure their current meeting space, adding an additional 26,000 square feet and a new 84-room guest tower. However, it turned into numerous meetings with the private residents who would be most impacted by the project and hours of public comment during Marco Island Planning Board and City Council meetings. Marco Islanders were split down the middle.

In the end, four elements needed changing in the Marriott’s Planned Unit Development Agreement with the city. The two PUD amendment requests and two land development code modifications were approved. Marriott officials requested an 11-foot variance on the current height limit in its PUD, which would allow the proposed guest tower to reach 111 feet — the exact same height as its current two guest towers. Second, Marriott asked to build a structure on the east side of Collier Boulevard to house its HVAC systems. It will be located north of existing cooling tower.

The land development code modifications sought by the Marriott included adjusting a 10-foot landscape buffer to a 5-foot buffer on the parking lot north of the valet entrance and reducing the number of landscaped islands on the interior of the parking lot.

According to Hernstadt, the project appears to be on course for its May groundbreaking. “The Marriott is coming in and going over building plans getting everything ready to start in May. They are submitting things for review…The ball is teed up for May,” he affirms.

4.) Approval of Mackle Park Community Center Referendum

On Nov. 4, some 3,928 Marco Islanders cast their ballot on the non-binding referendum question regarding the construction of a new Mackle Park Community Center: “Shall the city expend up to $3.5 million to construct a new community center up to 16,000 square feet at Mackle Park?”

The result may not have been a resounding “yes,” but it was “yes” nonetheless. With 2,059 yes votes, the referendum passed by a margin of 52.42 percent to 47.58 percent.

The vote seemed to confirm what the city already knew — that the current 8,000-square-foot building built in 1986 by Collier County is horribly out of compliance with the building code, ADA regulations and current flood codes and that Marco Island residents were not willing to pay the estimated $500,000 to perform piecemeal repairs

5.) Smokehouse Bay Bridge Project

Council Vice Chair Brown puts the Smokehouse Bay Bridge project in perspective like this: “Smokehouse

Floor-to-ceiling glass walls will offer natural lighting and gorgeous views of the Gulf of Mexico.

Floor-to-ceiling glass walls will offer natural lighting and gorgeous views of the Gulf of Mexico.

Bay Bridge was probably the most important issue we dealt with (in 2014). We were behind in this project, had to clear up design work and get this project moving, finally authorizing a sped up version with a 10-month completion. This will prove to be our most important decision of 2014.”

City Council approved the $7.625 million contract for the Smokehouse Bay Bridge during its May 19 regular meeting, after wrestling with the question for six years and spending upwards of $2 million trying to repair the deteriorating spans, concrete spalls and crumbling seawalls while also designing a replacement bridge.

The project took on an entirely new importance during the public hearings for the Marriott PUD changes, and on June 2, the hotel’s ownership group offered kick in $1 million to expedite the renovation of the bridge. The extra money took the 18-month bridge project down to 10 months, eliminating any potential overlap between the bridge work and construction at the Marriott while also eliminating the potential need for Marriott construction traffic to use San Marco Road (U.S. 92).

With work underway and one bridge span demolished, it is now clear that bridge contractor Quality Enterprises USA Inc. is not going to make its original completion date, Hernstadt concedes: “A change order will be presented to City Council soon for issues that arose that were outside of the control of Quality Enterprises. These were unforeseen conditions that they had to deal with. It is about two or three weeks behind schedule.”

Still, he stresses that “for a project of this type in an active part of town, nothing has happened that is not typical of this type of project. This would have happened to anyone who you had on the job.”

6.) Changes at the Marco Island Police Department

Back on May 9, former Marco Island Police Chief Don Hunter submitted his written notice of separation to Hernstadt. Hunter would remain at his post until June 1 but was leaving MIPD to enter the private security business.

This opened the door to a whole host of changes at the MIPD, the first of which was naming Al Schettino acting chief. Since taking the helm, Schettino has stabilized the department’s staff, restructured and organized its operations, and completely revamped its policing philosophy. All of this was done with one goal: To put as many officers in the field at all times.

Now, the department is fully-staffed with 34 sworn-officers. The assistant chief position changed to a captain, and the two lieutenant positions were

Early estimates for seawall repairs at the bridge top out at around $1 million.

Early estimates for seawall repairs at the bridge top out at around $1 million.

made sergeants. Their focus now is squad and patrol support, assisting during the peak call volume time of 10 AM-10 PM and during manpower shortages. Four new Community Service Officers, six Auxiliary Officers and two Reserve Officers were brought on board, as well as the resurrection of the MIPD’s bike patrol program and continuation of its Citizens Police Academy.

At the heart of the restructuring is Schettino’s emphasis on community-oriented policing, which has been around since the 1800s and focuses on police departments building ties and working closely with the community. These changes to the department are all for optimum operational efficiency and effectiveness. The additional personnel are force multipliers for MIPD, meaning they allow for more a personal presence in the community, which in turn creates stronger relationships with the community members.

7.) City’s Relationship with the Collier County Commission

Strides in strengthening the relationship between the city of Marco Island and Collier County also were made in 2014. First, there was the seasonal — and eventual full-time — approval by the county of a second Advanced Life Support ambulance for Marco Island to help with the ever-increasing medical calls answered by the Marco Island Fire-Rescue Department.

Then there was the Dec. 2 joint public workshop between the Marco Island City Council and Collier County Board of Commissioners. Arranged in the spirit of cooperation, the agenda for the meeting included ambulance service, park impact fees, signage and parking for Tigertail Beach, dredging of Collier Creek, parking near South Beach, and funding for arterial roadways and improvements to the Goodland Road (C.R. 92A).

The discussion of the Goodland Road and what should be done about it turned into the main topic, though. The only access in or out of Goodland and the singular emergency route for 300 homes, the road has long been in need of repair, as it often becomes impassable during high tides and storm surges.

Marco Island has owned Goodland Road since 2002 when it entered into a 15-year interlocal agreement with the county, which transferred ownership of the road and paid the city $1 million per year for the purpose of maintaining its integrity and safe passage. The problem: Some Goodland residents and the county do not believe the city has fulfilled its end of the bargain.

Since acquiring the road 12 years ago, the city has completed general maintenance and improvement elements, but an ultimate solution to the looming threat to public safety has yet to be implemented, and time is running out. With only three

Bob Brown. FILE PHOTO

Bob Brown. FILE PHOTO

installments left, county commissioners asked city councilors if they would be willing to set aside and escrow the remaining $3 million and earmark it for specific renovation and rehab of the road. The request was met with hesitation as councilors agreed the topic would have to be further discussed at a later date before any commitment could be made.

County Commission Chairman Tom Henning summarized that the plan going forward would begin with an executive summary to be brought to both boards. The summary will outline the scope of the project — from start to finish — and will address each party’s intentions. It also will contain input and expectations of Goodland’s residents, Florida statute information and all attorney opinions.

According to Hernstadt, this process will begin with a hydrological study so all parties can understand the requirements for possibly raising the road and to see if there is cost justification for that. The hydrological study will cost the city $65,000 and the county $15,000.

“The fact of the matter is the county and city made a deal, and the deal is the deal; neither can change the deal. It is what it is,” Hernstadt emphasizes.

He adds: “In the time that I have been here, every time there is a bad rain, high tide, full moon, they call me, and it is not that bad. You don’t build a road to handle a once in a 100 year storm unless you are using someone else’s money…The entire road needs to be addressed, though, our part and the county’s part. If you haven’t addressed the entire road, you are not going to fix the problem.”

Hernstadt hopes to move the relationship forward further by also tackling the topic of Mackle Park as a regional park that should receive funding from the county as well.

8.) Changes to Code Enforcement Department

Since April, Marco Island’s Code Enforcement Department has been quietly changing. First, city Environmental Specialist Nancy Richie was assigned to the three-person department to carefully examine all means and methods used by enforcement officers. Second was the City Council’s decision to migrate from using the Code Enforcement Board to handle code disputes to using a magistrate. Third is the creation of a new Code Advisory Committee to help write or rewrite the codes that provide the criteria for governing quality of life issues within the city. Fourth and final is the creation of the controversial rental ordinance, which is now being prepped to go before City Council.

While Richie continues her

Al Schettino. FILE PHOTO

Al Schettino. FILE PHOTO

evaluation of the Code Enforcement Department and Code Advisory Committee remains under development, the magistrate and rental ordinance are in full swing. City Council chose three candidates to serve as magistrate for the city beginning in February. Robert Pritt, Myrnbelle Roche and Monte Lazarus will now be tasked with hearing code enforcement cases at a rate of $175 per hour. Payment of code enforcement fines will help fund the magistrate program.

As for the rental ordinance, it was approved by Marco Island’s Planning Board by a 4-2 vote at its Dec. 5 meeting. As it now reads, the ordinance will govern all rentals — not just short-term vacation homes and units. Condominiums may have the option to “opt-out” if it is voted upon by its board of directors. Those condo communities who do register, will be required to pay a $150 fee inclusive of all units. The initial registration fee for all rentals was reduced from $250 to $150, with a $100 annual renewal fee. There is also a $75 fire-inspection fee.

The ordinance attempts to shift responsibility of the city’s code enforcement covering noise, trash and parking of cars and boats to the rental owners, providing brochures be given to property owners to distribute to tenants when leases and rental agreements are signed. Another placard must be installed in the rental units covering basic laws. The noise ordinance will be amended to eliminate the need for decibel monitors and will cover excessive noise violations 24 hours a day. It also lays out a protocol for handling code violations and requires anyone who discharges fireworks on Marco Island to have a city-issued permit.

9.) Lobbyist

During the Aug. 4 regular meeting, City Council voted 5-1 to hire Ronald L. Book PA as the city’s first official lobbyist with an annual fee of $60,000. The lobbyist idea was born out of the July 24 budget workshop, when Hernstadt broached the subject, stating that the city needed to focus some energy on getting money from state and federal sources, especially considering the political strength of its local legislators — Florida Senator Garrett Richter and Florida Rep. Kathleen Passidomo. While Richter is the chair of the Senate Gaming Committee and sits on the Appropriations Committee among others, Passidomo is the chairwoman of the House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee and sits on a variety of other committees.

Chief among Hernstadt’s targets for the lobbyist are funding for Veterans Memorial Park, funding for storm water projects and funding for water and waste water projects.

“If

Nancy Richie. FILE PHOTO

Nancy Richie. FILE PHOTO

we are going to get in essence three to four times what we are paying the lobbyist, that is a success for year one,” notes Hernstadt.

What’s to Come in 2015

So, what is on the city’s docket for 2015?

Hernstadt, Sacher and Brown all agree the city’s $150 million in utility bond debt, utility rates and moving forward with the Mackle Park community center project will be front and center for City Council and city staff next year.

The city hopes to move forward on Mackle Park with a Jan. 20 joint workshop between City Council and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee. Two issues need to be resolved: 1.) the size of the facility in relation to current programming and proposed growth, and 2.) how the city wants to plan the construction, in phases or by shutting the building — and its programs — to build the new community center all at one time.

Hernstadt believes phased construction is the more expensive alternative because the contractor would have to bring its crews back twice to do the work. However, if the construction process is not phased, Hernstadt contends, the building and programming would be shut down long enough to build the new facility.

“This is an option,” he says.

The utility debt and rate structure will take a bit longer to resolve, despite City Council’s recent decision to implement the previously approved 2.1 percent utility rate increase.

For Hernstadt, the utility debt could be handled by creating a “bucket plan” budget for the utility much like the city did for its General Fund. He admits, though, the challenge is in doing this within an improved fee structure that residents will see as being “fair and equitable” as well as within the context of an annual need for $7 million in capital improvements just to maintain the current water and wastewater system.

“Every year, we fund less than that ($7 million),” Hernstadt explains. “It doesn’t do us any good to struggle to pay down debt if we aren’t filling the coffers. It doesn’t make sense to pay off $10 million just to go borrow $15 million.”

Also on Hernstadt’s radar are city infrastructure replacement, making public assets a priority and continuing to open the lines of communication with citizens. “It is important to communicate with the people, hearing what their concerns are and addressing what you can address when it makes financial or efficiency sense. We haven’t cornered the market on good ideas here, and we want foster an environment that encourages that,” he says.

“There is plenty still to be done.”

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