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Commission pushes ahead in undergrounding amid protests

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

The Longboat Key Town Commission in the face of dozens of Villagers and other residents decrying their plan, voted last week to move forward with undergrounding all of the utility lines on Longboat Key.

The Town plans to use non-ad valorem assessments to pay for the $23.85 million project and the calculation on how much a property owner will pay is commensurate with the so-called ‘benefit’ received by the property.

In short, homeowners who currently have power lines above ground will pay between $5,000 and $10,000 over the course of 30 years for the project. Those whose power lines are already buried, which is about two-thirds of the key or 6,000 residences, will pay about $500 apiece. It is that disparity that caused numerous residents to call the plan “inequitable,” “unconscionable” and “lacking in democratic principle.”

“I think it’s grossly unfair to many of the residents,” said Longbeach Village resident Michael Drake.

Another Village resident, Joe Mazza, said the Village “seems to be bearing the brunt of this.” Mazza continued, “We are up around the $8,000 mark and I don’t see us getting that benefit from this. It’s a very slight amount of money for 10,000 people, but not for 600 people.”

Karen Feeney disagreed with the methodology.

“This ‘special benefit’ nonsense does not make sense. This is a community – let’s do something reasonable and equitable,” said Feeney.

Villager Pete Rowan said the town should not hold a referendum where the majority voting will only pay $500 or less and can decide to put the minority in obligation for 10 times that amount. He also brought up the financial burden issue.

“Have we anticipated the number of people who will lose their homes because of this referendum? We should reset. We should look at ad valorem taxation and get commercial properties to pay into this project. We shouldn’t rush into this; we should not focus on a March referendum. We should take our time to get it right,” said Rowan.

Steven Girard complained of the complexity of the assessment methodology.

“I don’t think this system sounds fair; it is very complicated. Perhaps our consultants and Mr. Bullock understand it. I’m in the $8,500 in cost range in a fairly modest home which is below the average value on the key. Who’s to say it’s a benefit? This is nowhere close to being questionable; it is unconscionable. It doesn’t seem democratic that people with so little in the game can decide,” said Girard.

In the wake of the criticism, Vice Mayor Terry Gans offered his reaction.

“The idea that equitable being everyone pays the same, sounds nice, but we live in a political reality of what is feasible. But as nice as it would be for the more than 60 percent who are already buried to pay to bury your…” said Gans.

Gans was interrupted by shouts of protest from the audience to which Mayor Jack Duncan hit the gavel and said, “You’re not going to speak out of turn.”

Commissioner Lynn Larson explained that it is the legal requirements in issuing debt that requires a referendum and the method the town used to determine the benefit is needed as a legal basis to justify how much each property is charged.

Commissioner Pat Zunz asked whether it would be possible legally to use a flat tax to pay for the project.

The town’s bond counsel said it could not be done since the benefit is not equal to each property. The bond counsel went on to say that the town could either use ad valorem taxes in which the payment would be determined by property value, or the non-ad valorem assessment method; the method with which the town is opting to go forward.

Resident Madelyn Stewart said, “The plan has been thrust upon us. It’s an unfair distribution of cost and causing division in the community. It is also imposing a home improvement decision. Home improvements should not be forced by town government. All of this seems to be contrary to freedom of choice, which the constitution is in place to protect.”

Another Village resident invoked history:  “These big numbers are going to ruin people here, we had the Boston Tea Party because people were unfairly taxed. Now we have decided to do non-ad valorem. Please don’t go forward with this until we get this right,” said Carla Rowan.

Commissioner Larson gave a history lesson herself. She said that a year ago, Village residents protested the Town Manager’s proposal for undergrounding neighborhoods. She said that everyone then said they wanted it to be subsidized, and now “you’re getting an 18.5 percent discount on what it would cost to underground your houses,” said Larson.

In the proposal that the town has adopted to underground the neighborhoods, the cost is shared with those who already have underground utilities paying 18.5 percent of the $23.85 million total and those who are not undergrounded will pay the balance. Fiber optic cable will be buried throughout the entire community in both areas.

Commissioner Irwin Pastor said that the reason the town is pushing forward is it will cost millions of dollars more if it does not do the project now.

“Not only are you penalizing yourselves, but everyone on the island,” said Pastor.

Bullock said the town looked at other options that put more of the financial burden on those who already have undergrounded properties, but it could not be legally justified because there was not enough benefit to those properties to support a higher ratio.

After a lengthy discussion, the commission voted 6-1 to move forward with the neighborhood undergrounding and later at a special meeting voted 6-1 to adopt an ordinance. Commissioner Pat Zunz voted in dissent in both instances.

 

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3 Responses for “Commission pushes ahead in undergrounding amid protests”

  1. LBK taxpayer says:

    Pete Rowan asked about the fairness if a majority of the voters are paying less than others.
    Based on the information I have seen in print there are 10,038 properties on the tax roles and there are 5,986 registered voters (some may not be property owners). So approximately 40% of the people that will pay for the under-grounding will not even have an opportunity to vote. Add to that the fact that only 2,234 people voted on the first under grounding referendum — so 22% of the “taxpayers” decided the fate for the other 78%.

  2. Chicklet says:

    If there is a safety and esthetic benefit from burying the GMD power lines, why not charge taxpayers based on how often they drive past and enjoy the beauty.

    Honestly, when an apartment building installs a new elevator, the people living on the first floor do not pay less. If the town builds a new library, the people living near the site don’t pay extra because of the ‘benefit’. This is a scam.

  3. Tony Jimenez says:

    the infrastructure currently in place is working fine and no where near the end of its useful life. The is a opportunity to hold the line and not increase taxes.

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