Worthington pushes for referendum vote; Neugent proposes casino

Though an important hub for private service for numerous property owners and visitors throughout the Middle and Upper Keys, Marathon city councilman Pete Worthington said he’s not happy with the seeming lack of activity at the Florida Keys Marathon airport.

During the last two council meetings, Worthington has worked to convince his fellow council on the dais that the voters should be given the opportunity to voice their support – or opposition – to recruiting yet another commercial air carrier to the facility that hasn’t seen commercial service since Delta pulled out in 2007.

Worthington said he wanted to get a word from the voters on how important commercial air service would be for the community as well as the tax base.

“Is this really important to this community?” he offered. “Or do we let things stay the way they are? I’m not particularly happy with the way things are.”

The language constructed by city staff puts forth to the voters asks if the Monroe County Commission should actively pursue commercial airline service at a minimum of two inbound and two outbound flights daily between Marathon and either Miami or Fort Lauderdale or another major Florida airport.

Councilman Mike Cinque reminded the dais that in the previous council meeting, he suggested putting the item forth to voters in the presidential primary election in order the capture more response.

“I’ll support it,” Cinque said of Worthington’s referendum item. “I see nothing wrong with it if Monroe County can get one (commercial air carrier) in here.”

With only Cinque and freshman councilman Rich Keating having declared their intention to run for re-election in November, Worthington noted that he would not want the city to incur $36,000 in election costs just for the one item.

“If we’ll have a bigger turnout for the presidential primary in January, I’d be all for it,” Worthington commented before the council voted unanimously to send the item to the county elections office to be included on the January ballot.

During the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting, County Commissioner George Neugent alerted the Marathon city council of his intention to bring up for discussion the idea of planting a casino at the underutilized airport.

Neugent said that as the leadership in the Keys, it’s up to local municipalities to propose creative ideas for financing during lean financial periods.

“We live in some very challenging economic times right now,” Neugent offered. “We’re doing better than most based on information I get. But, I know we’re losing people, friends…people are in foreclosure still today. I drive U.S. 1 from Ocean Reef to Key Largo, and I see closing storefronts still today. Property values are still going down.”

After speaking informally with stakeholders in the situation, including the state attorney, Neugent said each had advised that the issue be vetted publicly before the county commission.

“Clearly there are some pros, and clearly there are some concerns,” he addressed the council. “I just wanted to give you a head’s up that I’ll be bringing this up in the July meeting in Key West. I know this could be politically charged, but I do think it should be publicly discussed.”

In other business:

• City Manager Roger Hernstadt received glowing reviews from all five council members, including Keating who joined the council at approximately the same time Hernstadt was hired.

“He said he would lead by example, and that’s been the case,” Keating noted. “He also has respect from his adversaries as he’s dealt with them and saved the city thousands of dollars with his negotiating skills.”

Vice Mayor Dick Ramsay also commended Hernstadt for his progress in understanding the complexities of balance in a small, close-knit community such as Marathon.

After nearly three decades working in the public sector, Hernstadt requested some flexibility in his 401k investment.

“I don’t think the time is such that a raise is appropriate,” Hernstadt offered. “The fact of the matter is that I’ve been a government employee for a long time, and I have pension benefits from previous employers.”

Finance Director Peter Rosasco admitted this was the first time he was fielding the request for contract changes, and Ramsay asked that he have a chance to review the final language changes in the contract before the council approves it.

• Hernstadt brought back to council options for the lease renewal agreement of the trailers on the events field between 98th and 99th Streets that currently house staff and records of city hall. The current lease rate on the modulars is $63,000 per year for what he called the typical two-year term. If the city were to enter into a three-year lease, Hernstadt said the lease rate would reduce to $57,000 per year, and five-year lease terms would drop rates to $50,400 per year.

“As I understand it, we’re responsible for the maintenance of those trailers?” Keating asked. “That roof hasn’t been replaced in five years, and the money we’ll save in long term contract would have to be spent in repairs.”

Mayor Ginger Snead reported that after scouting for new commercial space for her own business, though there are a lot of vacant units available, there are none with the amount of space needed to accommodate all of city staff, equipment and records.

• Council heard from Attorney John Wolfe on what he called “morally and legally indefensible” wastewater treatment assessments at 1.75 EDUs per unit. Wolfe said that rate had tenants in his family-owned Trailerama RV park at the corner of 15th Street and U.S. 1 looking at an additional $124 a month for their water utility, “before they’ve even used a drop of water.”

Wolfe continued that a collection system had already been installed on the property in 2003, and he had asked for no reimbursements from the city for that cost.

“We work to keep our rents the lowest in town, and we will go through the appeal process,” Wolfe addressed the council. “We do expect equal treatment and will ask what other RV parks have done.”

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