The January 26 meeting was designed to get public input into funding the new bridges, after a projected shortfall of $1.7 million annually for the forseeable future made the board realize that additional revenue would be needed.
A mix of island business and property owners turned out to hear the latest financial news on the impending construction project. Several options to finance the construction, such as combining an increase in tolls, a decrease in discounts, and an ad valorem tax, were discussed. Of all the options weighed, the one with the most support was an ad valorem tax.
However, business owners are worried that an increase in tolls would keep customers off of the island. Employers generally reimburse their employees for trips across the bridge.
Bart DeStefano, owner of South Beach Bar & Grille, commented, “I already pay over $15,000 a year to reimburse my employees for trips over the bridge. A toll increase to $7.50 would take that up over $35,000. Not only that, but a lot of my business is from off-island. People won’t want to come out here if the tolls go up too much.”
Yvonne Anderson, CEO of the Boca Grande Club, said that they pay over $60,000 a year in tolls.
“It’s part of the cost of doing business out here, it’s expected and put into the budget,” she said.
Several tax scales were presented at the meeting. A property owner with a home valued at $1 million would pay anywhere from $250 to $750 more each year in taxes. A cap, set by their charter, says that homeowners can pay no more than $2,000 each year. While the Bridge Authority considered giving voters on the island a bridge credit of up to $350 a year if an ad valorem referendum passes, the overwhelming feeling in the auditorium was that simplicity would be best, and that the credit should be dropped from the plan.
All information about a referendum would have to be turned in to Lee and Charlotte counties by August to be placed on the November ballot. There are 1,500 eligible voters on the island, and two years ago, when the most recent group of board members was elected there was a turnout of 800. This year is a presidential election year, so turnout is expected to be higher for any vote.
The Authority is eager to get opinions from the public about the financing options under consideration.
It is expected that Orion Marine, the winning bidder for the fixed bridge replacement contract, will begin to move equipment onto the island as early as March. A temporary bridge will replace the south bridge as well, and should be up by May. Demolition of the south bridge should be underway by June. Prior to that, work on FP&L and Water Association utility lines will begin.
The cost of the two bridges is expected be $14.3 million dollars, down from the initial $16 million bid.
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