Helen Garcia Valdez worships Sunday at Cape Coral Assembly of God. / Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com
Pastor Michael Carter leads worship service Sunday at Cape Coral Assembly of God. / Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com
If you go
• What: Cape Coral City Council special meeting on the Utilities Expansion Project methodology and financing
• When: 4:30 p.m. Wednesday
• Where: Cape Coral City Council Chambers, 1015 Cultural Park Blvd Cape Coral, FL
For more information, call 574-0436
In the mid-’90s, a group of Cape Coral church leaders gathered in solidarity against what they saw as inequitable assessments and sued the city. They called themselves the “Coalition of Fairness.”
The judgment of a settlement in 1996 was seemingly clear. Churches within the utilities’ extension zones, known then by the colors green and orange, would pay a portion of assessments but not the whole. It wasn’t the right methodology, a resolution at the time read, to charge these properties using the same formula as residential, multifamily and commercial areas.
The city covers 85 percent of the cost for institutional properties such as churches out of the general fund.
With the latest utility expansion project now set to begin construction as early as this summer, council will discuss and potentially vote Wednesday on a resolution that removes the annual contributions. This means that once the assessments are decided, the churches would have to pay the full amount.
“A lot of pastors are really scared it’s going to be a dramatic bill,” said Pastor Mike Carter of Cape Coral Assembly of God. “We’re a church that feeds 1,500 to 2,000 people a month with our food pantry. The churches are getting better than they have in the past; we’re filling in where city government can’t at this time. It’s a cooperative effort to make Cape Coral a better place.”
Part of reason the city pays a portion is that facilities such as churches and lodges, among others, provide services “that otherwise might be requested or required to be provided by the city and thus provided a partial public benefit.”
The formula cited in the lawsuit for potable water and waste water assessments was “equal to two residential units, four single-family lots, per three acres of church property.”
The 4-square-mile region of the most recent project includes 6,147 lots, about half of which are undeveloped. There are 11 churches that will be affected by Wednesday’s decision.
Depending on the size of the properties, the city would contribute an amount ranging from $12,000 to more than $60,000 per property. The future contributions for the 11 properties is estimated around $421,942 per year from the general fund. The majority of the properties currently rely on well water and septic systems.
It does come down to fairness to a majority of council members.
“Moving forward, everyone is paying,” said Councilman Derrick Donnell. “(The churches) certainly are a concern, everyone is tightening their belts. It’s about everyone paying their fair share.”
The final assessment numbers are heavily dependent upon how the bid prices come back. Council members expect them to be better than their estimates, which are based off 2009 pricing with a 3 percent inflation multiplier built in. Some have called this contribution by the city a subsidy, but pastors say this is a mischaracterization.
“There is a judgment on record that defines how churches and large parcels will be handled with utilities expansions,” said Brett Furlong, executive pastor at Cape Christian Fellowship. “It’s not that we don’t want to pay our fair share. Our hope is the city can see the logic behind the judgment.”
Cape Christian Fellowship has been in the area for 26 years and supported the initial litigation. Their current property is approximately 603,604 square feet, according to city staff. As one of the 11, they’d be eligible to receive an annual contribution of $62,267 for their assessments, according to city staff.
Furlong said to build their main campus off Chiquita Boulevard required purchasing land from 48 separate owners. It makes up three city blocks. But just because there could be almost 50 houses built on their property, doesn’t mean it should be charged as if there were. The church is also required to maintain a large water retention lake and have parking for more than 500 vehicles. They have an average weekly attendance of 1,800 between their two locations and four services.
He delivered the documents from the original court case to Councilman Lenny Nesta and Mayor John Sullivan. Nesta said he’s already given the lawsuit information to the city attorney’s office and is waiting for more information before commenting on the issue.
A week ago, Cape Council approved Cape Christian’s plans to create “Fellowship Park” a public outdoor recreation area that will provide pavilions, a walking path and space for events as well as other additions.
Off Skyline Boulevard, Cape Coral Assembly of God has an over 30-year-old building they need to keep up. This means a new roof and overhang at a cost of about $50,000. The church also runs a food pantry for Harry Chapin Food Bank, a day care called Skyline Christian Academy and are supporting missionaries around the world.
One percent of their monthly income goes back to the community.
It’s a diverse congregation of around 300 on an 8-acre lot. The approximate annual contribution from the city if the program continued would be around $50,496. Pastor Candice Carter said they’ve talked to church leadership about tightening their budgets and have held calls to prayer for three weeks.
Grace Baptist Church was one of the churches in the lawsuit. Senior pastor Tom Ascol has three packed files of documentation including engineering reports, lawyer’s letters and editorials. The group as a whole spent almost $50,000 on the lawsuit, he said.
Grace Baptist took part on principle. Ascol sees this issue going back to court if the city tries to push the full assessment.
“We invested tens of thousands of dollars to agree and finally do what their own city staff said was right,” Ascol said. “To save the city some embarrassment, I hope they don’t do this.”