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New Year’s revelations
December 28, 2018

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An environmental disaster of unprecedented scale, a slap of heartbreaking reality on the public safety front - and progress nonetheless.

Here in the Cape, 2018 will be marked as the year of blue-green algae, mandatory police presence in schools, and a moving forward on some key issues, notably the city's Parks Master Plan, the finalization of a franchise agreement with the city's electric services provider and an interlocal agreement that will improve water quality.

In terms of moving forward: The good.

Just shy of 54 percent of Cape Coral voters approved a $60 million bond referendum to fund the city's Parks Master Plan. Residents agreed to pay a bit more in property taxes over the next 15 years to pay for seven new neighborhood parks, a new environmental park, the development of three larger community parks and improve 19 existing parks.

Countywide, nearly 52 percent of voters casting a ballot in November approved an additional half-cent sales tax to pay for school infrastructure - new schools and facilities improvements. The additional tax will be added to most taxable purchases over the next decade.

The message?

We count two.

One, in a region where frugality - at least on the part of taxpayers - reigns, voters said they are willing to pay more for the things they believe our community needs.

The second, and perhaps more telling, the approval votes reflect public optimism - and trust.

Trust that our economy is strong and will remain so.

Trust that the money will be spent as promised.

As we head into 2019, we share both that optimism, and trust in our elected officials and city and school district staffs.

But be assured: Confidence is neither a blind trust nor a blank check.

Both the city and the school district have announced spending and project transparency. Cape Coral's city administration has said it will provide updates via quarterly reports. The School Board of Lee County will appoint a 15-member independent "sur tax oversight committee" to monitor spending with periodic reviews due to the board and so the public.

We look forward to those updates.

On the economic development front, 2018 saw movement with one major city project all but completed and two others inching forward.

In addition to new businesses, including a new car dealership on Pine Island Road with two more in the works, the city all but finished its $13 million-plus "streescape" project on Southeast 47th Terrace in the South Cape with about $50,000 in finishing touches to the Community Redevelopment Agency-funded $260,000 Cape Coral Parkway median refurbishment approved in 2016.

The $13 million streetscape project includes not only wide "multi-use" pavered paths along the roadway and fresh landscaping, but street and utility infrastructure improvements, the bulk of the cost.

The final tally for the not-to-exceed contract is expected once work concludes in January although Council also has approved an additional $805,000 in "add-ons" for things such as information kiosks, fiber optics, video cameras, license plate readers, electric car chargers and safety "bollards." Funding was sandwiched into borrowing for Fire Station 11 on Burnt Store Road.

The fiber optics, bollards and lighting improvements have been installed. The requests for proposal for the kiosks are in and the city is waiting for vendor quotes for the cameras. The proposed electric car chargers are no longer part of the add-ons proposal.

City Manager John Szerlag called the streetscape initiative a "generational impact project" that he says will "create an environment of investment" in the South Cape and the surrounding area.

Private investment in the South Cape has been on the city's wish list for as long as its CRA has been in existence.

And as of 2018 and into the new year, some big changes are perking.

Among the projects outlined in the $60 million parks plan are improvements and reconfiguration to the city's Yacht Club park. A more open waterfront, a parking garage and the possibility of relocating the senior center are on the table.

Not included in the Parks Master Plan but in negotiations, is the purchase of the old golf course acreage. Plans to buy the 175-acre site stumbled in 2018 over environmental issues and related soil mitigation costs but the city in November retained George Gramling of Gramling Environmental Law and hired Geosyntec Consultants Inc. to evaluate the property and the extent of remediation required.

Resolution, one way or the other, is expected in 2019 with city officials confident its purchase plan will move to completion.

The city, meanwhile, has moved into the plans solicitation phase for two major projects, one within the South Cape, the other in northwest Cape Coral.

In August, the Cape Coral City Council authorized staff to begin soliciting bids for potential partnerships for the Bimini Basin area. Most of the land there is privately owned by three independent development groups but the city owns a waterfront park there, Four Freedoms, that could be a key component of any redevelopment plan.

In 2018, the city tackled water quality in the Bimini Basin, first blamed on boats moored in the basin but later attributed to a clogged master culvert from the Rubicon that prohibited natural water flow. As it turned out, the boats had virtually no live-aboards.

The city is moving forward with its plans to create a formal "mooring field" for boats that will allow the city to regulate and monitor anchorage in the Bimini.

In October, the city struck a deal with the world's largest international real estate firm to market a 48-acre site it owns called the Seven Islands, off Old Burnt Store Road.

Council agreed to pay CBRE a monthly retainer, to be reimbursed by any developer to successfully come forward to buy, lease or enter into a public private partnership to bring the city's design concept to fruition.

That concept calls for mid-rise residential units, a resort hotel, marina with boat slips, meeting facility, commercial space as well as a community center and park.

Also among the city's accomplishments for 2018 are a pair of agreements that had been too long in the works.

The Cape Coral City Council took control of negotiations with LCEC, the city's electric utility provider, which had been operating without a franchise agreement since talks with the city previously stalled.

Council named Mayor Joe Coviello to act as negotiator and he wrapped up efforts undertaken by Council For Progress Chair Brian Rist and Executive Director Joe Mazurkiewicz after efforts by city staff failed, failed and failed again over the course of nearly three years.

The new 20-year agreement (with a 10-year extension unless one party disagrees) locks in the city-imposed franchise fee of 3 percent for the next five years, ending a contentious and costly contretemps that resulted in approximately $1.18 million in legal fees - $577,634 incurred by the city and another $600,000-plus incurred by LCEC.

Which we, as city taxpayers and ratepayers paid for. Twice.

If we are grateful for anything being pulled off the city's plate in 2018, this is it.

Thank you, thank you.

The city - and staff gets the credit for this one - also hammered out an agreement with the city of Fort Myers.

After more than six years of effort and negotiations that included the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the two municipalities reached an accord that will mitigate the discharge of 6 to 11 million gallons of treated wastewater into the Caloosahatchee every day.

According to the terms of the 30-year pact approved by the two municipalities in September, Cape Coral will purchase effluent Fort Myers is currently discharging into the river.

The agreement will cost the Cape an estimated $15 million, some of which already has been offset by a near $800,000 grant, to build a pipeline across the Caloosahatchee to acquire the reclaimed water that then will be available for irrigation use here in the city.

Cape Coral will pay 95 cents per 1,000 gallons of water to be used for irrigation purposes to start, an initial sticking point as Fort Myers had hoped for $2 per.

City utility customers - and the Cape as a whole -get a direct benefit.

The effluent purchase will reduce the need to use water intended for household use for lawns and landscaping during the dry season and times of drought. Supplemental irrigation water has carried a total tab of $1.7 million since November 2016 alone - and that was with watering restrictions in place.

The city of Cape Coral also will get environmental "credits" from the state for "removing nutrient loading from the river." Those credits can then be used for other projects, such as the removal of the Chiquita Lock. The city has sought state permission for years and just received notice that a permit is finally pending. A challenge, though, may hold things up in 2019.

If things progress as expected, the water pact improvements will be completed by Jan. 15, 2023 so this isn't a New Year baby. It is, however, a big accomplishment for 2018 as well as a win-win -and win - for residents on both sides of the bridge as well as for our Gulf, bays and local waterways.

Those are the highlights of 2018's "goods." Unfortunately, the year's bad was very bad, though not in our own backyard.

Seventeen students were shot to death and another 17 wounded at Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland in February.

The massacre perpetrated by a former student stunned state officials into immediate action that resulted in mandates for every school district in Florida.

In addition to campus "hardening," resource officers were required for all schools. The Lee County Sheriff's Office immediately added 40 and the city of Cape Coral budgeted to hire 23 police officers to cover district and city charter campuses.

City start-up costs were estimated at about $2.2 million total for personnel, equipment and vehicles for the last budget year and the new one that began in October with recurring costs expected to be about $737,000 annually.

The Lee County School District will pay half of the personnel cost for 22 officers and one sergeant up to $50,000 per SRO, using Safe School Allocation funds.

The city will pay the rest of the cost for the personnel required by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act passed in March,which requires all schools to have at least one SRO on duty.

Cape Council members called it the easiest expense approval to come before them.

The Lee County School Board, and the Lee County Sheriff's Office took similar views.

Bad times, indeed, but a hopefully safer school year for our children, educators and support personnel for 2019 and beyond.

And the ugly? It was stinking ugly?

Through the summer, Cape canals were slimed pea-soup green with an algae called cyanobacteria, resulting in fish kills and dead manatees in the Caloosahatchee.

Lee County's shorelines and beaches saw dead fish by the literal ton as well as dead manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, goliath grouper and even a 26-foot whale shark due to the worst on-shore outbreak of red tide ever.

While not the sole cause, nutrient-heavy, algae-laden discharges from Lake Okeechobee took much of the blame for the shore-to-shore pea-green "blooms" of toxic fish-killing cyanobacteria both here and on the east coast of Florida along and around the St. Lucie River.

The discharges were also cited as a major contributory cause that fed the toxin-producing Karenia brevis, the organism that makes up red tide.

A number of actions, helpful and contrary alike, followed in the wake.

In October, President Trump signed the bipartisan Water Resources Development Act, a $6 billion conglomeration of projects including many key to correcting - and so ultimately preventing - the water quality calamity that not only left beaches from Marco Island to Tampa awash with dead sea life but wreaked havoc on our tourism-based economy. The communities of Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel suffered an estimated loss of $41 million in the months of July and August alone.

The act advances 68 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects that had been previously approved, including authorization of the EAA Southern Storage Reservoir intended to mitigate flows west and east through the rivers by providing storage for Lake O overflow during the rainy season.

The state approved the construction of the reservoir to store and treat water, so it can then flow naturally south, in 2017.

The act also expedites a review of the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, or LORS.

The Army Corps must begin an update next year so that accurate data will be available when repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake O are expected to be completed in 2022.

The repairs will enable the lake to safely hold more water; the data will better address flow post-repair.

The act also calls for "a five-year technology demonstration project supporting research into projects that help detect, prevent, reduce, and mitigate the occurrence of harmful algal blooms."

The action is in addition to $206 million recently appropriated by the House, with a total of $610 million to be set aside to complete the Herbert Hoover Dike repairs by 2022 instead of the end of the decade, according to Congressman Francis Rooney's office.

Efforts ultimately led to $115 million being set aside for Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in the FY2019 budget with a total of nearly $1.1 billion appropriated for dike repairs and restoration projects this fiscal year and next, according to the congressman, who has made water quality a priority.

That's a lot money and it certainly is a victory on the water quality battlefront.

We're grateful.

Count that on the plus side of the water quality ledger.

In the negative column, actions by federal agencies has resulted in a threatened lawsuit over water quality in 2019 as three environmental groups this month put the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service on notice.

Saying they are tired of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers being treated as Lake O's toilet, The Center for Biological Diversity, the Calusa Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance say they will contest the Army Corps' plan to extend through 2025 a water management plan that allows Lake O discharges of "waters polluted with toxic, nutrient-rich agricultural waste" west into the Caloosahatchee and east into the St. Lucie.

Meanwhile, mayors throughout Lee County, including Mayor Coviello, are crying foul over the South Florida Water Management District board's rejection of their plea to address discharges by better linking lake levels to South Florida's dry-wet seasons.

Officials statewide are decrying a similar decision to extend an agricultural lease on state-owned lands earmarked for discharge retention and the reservoir.

So as we move into 2019, the fight to restore the Everglades and related watersheds is far from over.

Local water quality warriors emphasize that while millions have been allocated, it's still not full funding for all 68 of those projects long ago approved in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

We must continue to be vocal.

We must continue to be vigilant in the new year.

On the water quality front.

And on the home front.

We wish you and yours a most happy New Year.

May 2019 be a very good year for you and for the community we call home.

- Breeze editorial

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