Islamorada council members pulled a pair of resolutions related to an expansion of ridesharing in the village through Freebee at a Sept. 7 meeting at Founders Park Community Center.
In May 2022, a previous council directed village staff to seek a state grant for a possible extension of Freebee rides from early morning to late at night seven days a week. The current council is pumping the brakes on an expansion, however. The decision came as a community survey spearheaded by Vice Mayor Sharon Mahoney seeks input from local residents on the service, which began in 2018 as a pilot project. Freebee started out transporting locals and visitors through two electric golf carts.
Service was limited to Upper Matecumbe Key since the carts couldn’t traverse bridges. By 2019, Freebee introduced two vans to the fleet. Service hours increased from 37 hours a week during a pilot project to 70 hours a week in 2019. Freebee currently uses Tesla X vehicles, which hold seven passengers, and one van. Under the new proposal, all three would operate seven days a week from 7 a.m. to midnight, expanding the operation to 210 hours per week. Earlier in the year, the village applied for and received word that a grant award totaling $276,665 would be available through the Florida Department of Transportation to subsidize the expansion.
Mahoney addressed rumors circulating throughout the village that she was attempting to get rid of Freebee. She said she isn’t seeking to eliminate the service.
“I love the rumors in this town,” Mahoney said. She suggested the dais defer the decision 60 days to allow for a committee to examine and determine the level of service needed from Freebee. She also sought a workshop to gather input from residents on ways to improve transit in the village.
“We’re trying to make it cost effective and better for everybody,” she said.
In total, annual costs for three Freebee vehicles operating seven days a week would total around $553,000. With a state grant providing 50% of the funding, the village would pay $276,665. Per a staff memo, costs incurred by the village would decrease by $65,839. Freebee services are currently provided at an annual cost of $342,504, which is paid in 12 payments of $28,542.
Freebee said its service has transported more than 130,000 locals and visitors since coming to the village more than four years ago. Of the riders using the service, Freebee said, 63% are locals and 37% are tourists. Ridership has increased throughout the years, from 21,284 in 2020 to 50,262 in 2023.
Geoffrey Campbell, local captain, took to the podium to voice his support for Freebee. He said the service not only is a safe means of transportation, but also an environmentally-friendly option for locals needing a ride to work or visitors requesting pickup from their hotels to go to restaurants and other businesses.
“Freebee doesn’t need to be slowed or shut, it should be expanded,” he said.
Councilman Mark Gregg suggested the council accept the grant and look at altering Freebee’s service, if needed, at a later date.
“If we have already kind of subconsciously said we like Freebee and want to move forward, we’ll save $65,000 if we accept the grant,” he said.
A decision over expanding Freebee is expected to be heard in November.
PAVILION PROJECT AT GREEN TURTLE HAMMOCK PRESERVE GOES OUT FOR REBID
Located at MM 81.2, bayside, Green Turtle Hammock Preserve is set to undergo a series of improvements for the benefit of locals and visitors. Among the proposed enhancements is a two-story pavilion to provide a scenic overlook of Florida Bay on a scarified area along the waterfront where a residential home once stood.
A bid for construction of the pavilion with a restroom, rails and roof went out July 12. Three proposals came back by the Aug. 15 deadline with the price tag coming in three times higher than the village anticipated when examining per square foot costs. Bryan Cook, interim village manager, outlined a series of options the council could consider related to the project. In the end, the council decided to alter the scope of the project and rebid. The village will look to secure proposals showing a roof on the pavilion and another proposal with no overhead covering.
DISCUSSIONS ENSUE OVER CHARITABLE DONATIONS & COMMITTEE SELECTIONS
More than $590,000 in funding requests by local nonprofits were submitted to the village as part of a charitable donation program that allocates $125,000 this fiscal year. Maria Bassett, finance director, categorized requests based on organizations the village has supported through funds or donations of property, as well as the type of organization. With a limited amount of funds available for nonprofits, Bassett said any requests under $10,000 could get the full amount. Those requesting more than $10,000 could receive 25% of the request. Nonprofits like Florida Bay Forever were eliminated, as Bassett said the village gave them a place to operate at Green Turtle Hammock Preserve. In addition, the village covers their utilities.
The council decided to discuss the matter at a Sept. 12 budget workshop.
Council also discussed a committee selection process approved by the council in April requiring local residents to apply and go through an interview in order to be considered. Each committee member, per the new ordinance, will be appointed by a council majority vote. Before, council members made their own selections to committees. Any at-large positions on committees were approved by majority vote.
For instance, an achievable housing citizens advisory committee — now named the workforce and affordable housing citizens advisory committee — that had four open seats saw a total of eight applications. Among the interested candidates were current members Don Horton, who serves as chairman; Keith Douglass; Lindsay Fast and Greg Dully. New applications came from village residents Susan Walker, Paige Presnell, Pete Bacheler and Joan Scholz. Council approved the appointments to the committee.
A decision over appointments to the Local Planning Agency, which had 12 applications for seven seats, will come back at a further date. In the meantime, the council will submit their top seven candidates to the village clerk and Cook.Discussion also ensued over the possibility of staggering terms of village council members, providing term limits, upping council pay and implementing limits on campaign spending. Councilwoman Elizabeth Jolin said such changes would need to go before the voters. An election could happen as soon as March, as Monroe County Elections Supervisor Joyce Griffin told the village they could conduct an election in March without any additional costs. The council is expected to discuss the matter further at a future meeting.
COUNCIL GETS TO ACTION ITEMS FIVE HOURS INTO THE MEETING
With an array of discussion items on the agenda, the council didn’t get to a series of resolutions until 10:30 p.m. — 5 hours after the meeting convened. A resolution was approved by the dais to go with the local company Page Excavating for maintenance work and repairs to the village wastewater system. A.J. Engelmeyer, wastewater services director, said a request for qualifications was sent out via print, social media and other forms of communication to contractors. Engelmeyer said the village received only one response in Page Excavating, which has worked on the village wastewater system since its inception. Engelmeyer recommended the council approve a five-year agreement with Page.
Some council members were hesitant to approve the resolution with an external audit underway on the village’s purchase procedures, approvals and invoices for wastewater work by Page Excavating. In June, council members supported an audit after two resolutions came before the council in March that paid Page Excavating a total of $3.9 million for a series of repairs and maintenance to the village’s wastewater collection system. Some village council members had questions over the work and the associated dollar figure. The work under review was done through a continuing services agreement with Page dating back to 2018.
“It just puts us in an awkward position,” Jolin said regarding the resolution and current external audit.
Engelmeyer said the village needs a contractor in the event of an emergency break. He said Page Excavating is able to handle anything the village wastewater system needs, such as an emergency break or maintenance work.
“If we don’t have this agreement and we have an emergency and we have to call upon them, they can charge whatever they want. We’re at their mercy,” Engelmeyer said.
A work authorization between the village and Page Excavating was also approved to provide an additional $100,000 for any remaining repair work through the end of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The dais closed out the meeting by unanimously supporting a resolution opposing any potential consolidation between the judicial court systems of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.