Council, city staff and citizens alike went through another marathon session on January 5 as the City grapples with major projects on the immediate horizon – and the effect that may have on citizens’ wallets.
(The nearly 4-1/2 hour meeting taxed the battery life of the Mount Dora Citizen’s video camera, batteries were swapped out, we continued.) The meeting can be viewed on Youtube, accessible here in 3 parts. Part 1: Here. Part 2: Here. Part 3: Here.
CANINE MAYOR AND VICE MAYOR SWORN IN
The first public presentation was the swearing in of the new canine mayor and vice mayor – offices created by the Heroes Foundation to raise funds (votes) for canine candidates for office. Merry Hadden presented Virgil for swearing in as Mayor and Donna Brown presented Edie for the swearing in as the vice mayor. Funds raised through voting are used towards the care of retired police dogs here in Mount Dora. (see additional story here)
US-441/SR-46 INTERCHANGE UPDATE
Representatives from the Wekiva Parkway Project provided an update to Council on plans to upgrade the US-441 / SR-41 interchange to a lighted at-grade intersection with a flyover. Wekiva Parkway public information officer Mary Brooks told council that the design phase will complete in April and right-of-way acquisition is now under way. Construct will begin in fall of 2017 and the interchange will be completed in 2019. The 25-mile Wekiva Parkway toll road will open in 2021.
Consensus for support of the plan is still a little rickety. Council members who supported the current design seemed to acknowledge it is the best option amongst the lot, but none seemed enthusiastic about the changes headed Mount Dora’s way. New council members continued to have questions. Mr. Slaby wanted to know why it is beneficial to stop 441 at a light at that intersection. (Brooks: the flyover should route the heaviest amount of that traffic—southbound on 441 heading toward the Parkway–away before the light). Ms. Tillett wondered how GPS mapping services can be prevented from routing traffic through the city center. (Brooks: the FDOT is meeting with the GPS-tracking software companies to update their maps.)
With traffic expected to double at that intersection by 2019 and by 2039 increase to five times the amount measured in 2012, issues like traffic flow into the city on 46 remain issues that the city on 46 and impacts on surrounding neighborhoods will face many councils to come.
(For background on the city’s deliberations on interchange, see our post “Crossroads for the City of Mount Dora”)
WATER AND WASTEWATER RATE STUDY
Next up, PRMG Inc., a water utilities financial services firm, provided council with results of a comprehensive rate study involving water, wastewater, reclaimed water, field services such as water taps and meters, along with impact fees.
With many major utilities projects recently completed or looming on the horizon (including the replacement of utilities in the downtown construction project, utilities relocations in advance of Wekiva Parkway construction in the area, running utilities out to the proposed Innovation District, the Thrill Hill water reclamation site and anticipated rise in demand due to development), city administration has been concerned about the financial condition of the city’s Water and Wastewater fund. This concern was voiced at the Sept. 10, 2015 first budget public hearing.
Three areas of concern were addressed in the study: first, adjusting utility rates with an eye toward future stabilization of the Water and Wastewater Fund; second, evaluation of field service rates bring reasonable cost recovery; and third, evaluating the city’s water utilities impact fee structure to ensure a balance between the cost of providing services and the fees charged.
PRMG’s recommendation was to raise water and wastewater rates 21%, bringing them in line with average rates charged throughout the area, and re-structuring the impact fees.
Although most of council was either on council at the time or present during the Sept. 10, 2015 public budget hearing in which these needs were communicated, many drilled city staff for accountability on the issue. Why has it been seven years since the last rate analysis? Are there efficiencies and savings in the operation that could offset some of the increase?
It isn’t the first time that major capital expenditures have resulted in big rate hikes for the city. Back in 2003, water rates were raised more than 40 percent to help pay for a $10 million sewage treatment plant that had just been built. This time, the costs are being offset more flexibly (much of the utilities infrastructure costs in the Innovation District will be covered by impact fees credits to developers), but still there will be pain. For what is considered an average consumption of 7,000 gallons a month, consumers will see about an $11 increase in their monthly water bill.
After complaints about the rates from a couple of the members, Council voted 7-0 to schedule the March 1 public meeting on the proposed increase. They did request more documentation and changes from the consultant. The entire presentation that was brought to council can be found here.
For more background information about water and wastewater projects, see “Major Water Utility Projects Weigh Down Mount Dora Budget” and “Water Challenges in a Thirsty State,” both printed in the Mount Dora Citizen on Aug. 28, 2015.
BIOSOLID TREATMENT PROPOSAL
Council then heard an update and public presentation on a Request for Qualifcations (RFQ) for treatment of biosolids, a growing cost issue for the city. In the past, Shelley’s Septic has had the contract for biosolid (septic sludge) hauling, at a cost of about $35 ton (or $600,000 a year). Costs for hauling are increasing as Federal Department of Environmental Protection regulations are becoming more specific and restrictive about waste disposal. (The sludge is the leftover bi-product that must be regularly removed from the waste treatment holding ponds at the city’s sewer plants.) With hauling rates looking to increase to as high as $70 a ton or more, a different method is needed to save money. Solar technology to dry this sludge using solar lenses, aided by propane or natural gas dryers and thus reduce the overall weight/tonnage removal cost has been used by the city for the past three years (costing some $350 thousand dollars), but it hasn’t proved sufficient.
Last fall, council had agreed to take a measured approach to finding solutions and did not include the project in the city’s 2016 budget. The city began looking for a vendor willing to construct, finance and operate a bio-solid processing facility on city property, thus avoiding capital expenditures. Five vendors expressed interest, two submitted bids, and one—Merrell Brothers—met all the criteria. The city would still pay for treatment, and in order to make the operation financially feasible for Merrell, multiple municipal partners in the area would be sought. One technological advantage in the Merrell proposal is to dry and pasteurize the sludge in a greenhouse, a more reliable process (no problem with cloudy days or humidity levels) to make the biosolid salable for reuse as fertilizers.
Even though the city will avoid the considerable capital expense, biosolid treatment still involves city operating expense, but Public Works estimates that the operation will be paying for itself within six years.
A representative from Merrell Brothers was on hand to answer questions, and there were several – for some unknown reason, the tone from the council was, at times rather hostile towards the representative.
This is only the first plant of the sort in Florida by Merrell Brothers, although one is due to come online in Pasco County soon and there are numerous plants around the country. Some questioned the wisdom of going with such “cutting edge” technology, though they were reminded the process has been used successfully for decades. Others asked if it was dicey to go with a plan so dependent upon participation of other municipalities.
Mayor Girone was concerned about prior cash outlays for the project and wondered why just one vendor was left in the running. According to staff, the greatest financial risk is to be assumed by the private company, Merrell Brothers.
According to Reggentin, many bigger municipalities are also looking for similar solutions so the field of vendors is becoming more competitive. Public works manager John Peters said there’s a flip side advantage to this, since so many cities are looking for solutions, now is the time to seek local partners for our effort.
Council was reminded that all they are being asked for at this time was approval to move forward with contract negotiations, during which many of these questions could be hashed out. That motion was put for, and it was approved 7-0.
(For more background, see “Mount Dora’s Expansion of Biosolids Facility Up for Discussion,” Mount Dora Citizen, Sept. 4, 2015)
ACTION MINUTES & OTHER ITEMS FOR DISCUSSION FROM COUNCIL MEMBERS:
The City Manager Pastue had requested clarification on the issue of action minutes, as decided at the prior meeting. During the last meeting, the council voted unanimously to change the format of meeting minutes from narrative (including a distillation of discussions and deliberations) to action (reflecting only votes made by council members, but adding a provision to include commentary from the public.) City manager Pastue had supported since it’s a more efficient use of staff time.
This night, the staff requested clarification on how meeting minutes were to be kept for the city’s boards and committees, as well. Determination was eventually made to keep all city board and committees on an action minute-basis only.
Initially, both council member Tillett and Mayor Girone suggested individual committees should have the latitude to determine how they wanted their meeting minutes kept. Tillett expressed her objection to narrative minutes being that they (narrative minutes) required staff discretion. Cal Rolfson pointed out that there should be a consistent standard, arguing that since committees and boards are a product of council, they should operate on the same standards.
Councilwoman Rich said she believed the narrative should be kept, or in some way preserved to provide historic context to decisions. She recommended that audio files of council proceedings be archived on the city’s website for 8-10 years, instead of the current two years, if council proceeded with their intent to go to action minutes. Pastue said it is possible to index minutes to locations on the audio file, and staff agreed to bring back a proposed retention schedule for audio and/or video files at a future meeting. (As of now, the audio file is readable only from Windows devices. Pastue has expressed interest in live-streaming of council meetings, but it would have to be budgeted.)
Council did ultimately vote to switch all meeting minutes to action minutes, voting 5-2 to proceed. Rich and Girone voted no. Mayor Girone wanted the issue left to the individual boards and committees, council member Rich though the minutes should be left as is.
Council discussed the importance of setting a goals and objective workshop, the date to be determined later.
Council did agree to continue as active members of the Lake-Sumter MPO, by unanimous vote.
Council Member Tillett asked that the RFQ for City Attorney, be advertised in advance of the RFQ release. She made a motion that staff be directed to release an electronic announcement of an RFQ – to go to Florida League of Cities, the local bar association, the city website or the Orlando Sentinel. Slaby seconded and the motion passed 6-1 with Rich dissenting.
Council members were encouraged to contact the City Attorney for updates or educational sessions on the Medallion Home lawsuit. During the previous meeting, several council members had indicated they preferred one-on-one meetings prior to a “shade” meeting, or executive session. Mayor Girone wanted to move forward to a settlement meeting in the shade, but at least one council member, Rolfson, preferred speaking with staff for background information prior to the scheduling of an executive session.
The decision was made, based on Pastue’s and Public Information Officer Megan Glass’ recommendation to council to discontinue the mailing of the City Connection Newsletter, as they feel electronic communication is more cost effective.
The Public Arts ordinance may well fall to the wayside. Council members will be discussing that issue in the future.
Waterman Village is looking at doing significant improvements. There will be further discussion about revenue bonds, the City operating as a pass-through. Depending upon how the bonds are established. There will be a future presentation on this issue. Council member Rolfson asked for a review of the city’s status.
Council member Tillett asked for change to the upcoming February 2 agenda, saying she wanted to push back an item until mid-February. It is inconvenient for some members who want to be present for discussions of the anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance to be present, so she requested the item be moved to another meeting date.
Mayor Girone complained about a columnist in the newspaper who referred to Mount Dora as a “dinky little community in Central Florida” and he read from a prepared statement, saying he wanted an apology from the columnist, though he knew he wouldn’t get one.
Council member Rolfson said he would like to minimize meetings held in the community building due to sound quality. He understands facility size is often an issue, but it is difficult to hear, given echoing. Mayor Girone said, “we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
Council Member Slaby said he enjoyed being able to see his fellow council members in the different venue of the community building. He said he had two people talk to him about code enforcement. In the future he wanted to talk about “perceptions in the city due to lack of information” like stuffing of envelopes in the City and also people saying permits are being pushed through over others. He would like to see more permit information online.
Council adjourned with Mayor Girone apologizing for the meeting length, but saying, “That’s what we get with public discussions.”
For more information about public records of city government, see “Mount Dora’s Government Website Keeps Growing,” (Sept. 11, 2015), “Tuning in to Mount Dora City Council” (Dec. 15, 2015), and “The Sunshine Law and Open Government,” (Aug. 15, 2015), all in the Mount Dora Citizen.
David Cohea & Melissa DeMarco, Co-Writers (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com)