MADEIRA BEACH — The city will spend $15 million to $20 million on projects that Finance Director Walter Pierce said will “take a big bite out of the problem we’re facing with stormwater in the city.”

First up will be the streets on Crystal Island, which the city has been promising to fix for years.

The expense, which will be financed by borrowing, was approved in a consensus vote by the City Commission at its April 23 workshop meeting.

“This is a serious, large financial commitment which will take on the most crucial of our stormwater projects,” Pierce said.

The commission agreed with a recommendation by city financial adviser Nicklas Rocca to pay for the stormwater improvements with a 15-year to 2-year loan. Rocca said “this is an attractive time to be borrowing, with interest rates near or at an all-time low.”

Pierce said he agreed with “the favorable aspects” of a loan.

“Now is the best time to do that,” he said.

The money will be dedicated to the stormwater/road improvement projects, Pierce said.

“We were able to get this targeted for these projects and it cannot be used for anything else,” he said.

Commission members and residents were pleased to see the money committed, with a promise the long-awaited stormwater projects would finally be getting underway. But some warned the promise had been heard before, in particular for Crystal Island.

“This is the most exciting thing ever getting done in Madeira Beach,” said Commissioner Deby Weinstein. “It’s been needed for so long.”

“I’m in favor,” she said. “We need to proceed now.” Weinstein added. “Everybody has talked about doing the streets, and they’ve never been done.”

Commissioner Doug Andrews said “this is a project that’s been promised for some time. I’m on board, but we have to deliver on it,” and “we have to find ways to pay for this.”

Andrews also said he was disappointed at the lack of grant money involved. Pierce said later the city would continue to look for appropriate grants to help with the funding.

Residents from Crystal Island who spoke on the subject were also skeptical of the city’s commitment to fix the roads. “We’ve been forgotten over there (Crystal Island Drive),” Chuck Lambert said.

This time, he said, “we need to keep our promises, and stay on task to get this project done.”

Jan Watenpaugh said she had heard the promises to fix the roads on Crystal Island for five years.

“We’ve been promised before, and we’re really tired of this,” she said.

If the work isn’t done soon, she said, “then all of a sudden our roads will be floating in the water.”

City Manager Jonathan Evans said city officials will be meeting with Crystal Island residents soon to inform them of the upcoming round of stormwater control projects, and to hear their comments and concerns.

Along with approval of the project budget and financing, the commission also agreed to a timetable for the projects recommended by the city’s engineer consultant, Al Carrier, of Deuel and Associates.

Carrier recommended delaying the start of the road project on Crystal Island Drive, which had a high priority, from this summer to late next year, and doing the back half of Crystal Island first. That’s so the roadway will not have to be torn up twice, for the road improvements, and later for the stormwater project, Carrier said.

Commissioner John Douthirt said the city should do Crystal Island Drive first, as originally planned.

“We made a promise, and we need to live up to the promise,” he said.

But Andrews said “it doesn’t make sense to rip the road up again” for the stormwater project. “Let’s wait and do it right,” Andrews said.

“We’ll start on the back half of the island and work our way back,” Evans said. “We have a multitude of other roadways that need fixing, but Crystal Island will be our priority.”

Parking fee, millage rate increase needed for costly projects

The spending of millions of additional dollars on road/drainage projects was followed up by a discussion of how to pay for the added cost.

Funding the projects and other needs “is going to be difficult if we don’t increase something,” Pierce said. “Balancing the budget is going to be very difficult ahead of this.”

Pierce recommended a 25-cent increase in the parking rate at city-owned lots, to $2.75 an hour.

Parking Supervisor Brian Rau said that would generate $200,000 to $250,000 more revenue.

In addition to raising the parking rate, Pierce said an increase in the millage rate next year “is almost guaranteed.”

“It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s ‘how much’ the millage rate will rise,” Pierce said.

Pierce said the city has raised parking fees several times in recent years, followed by significant revenue increases. City Hall has received no complaints about the rate hikes, Pierce said.

Evans said later the merchants at John’s Pass had heard objections from visitors when the fees have been increased.

Commissioners were divided over the proposed parking fee increase. Go ahead with it, said Mayor Black and Commissioner Weinstein.

Weinstein said most private lots near John’s Pass Village charge $5 an hour “and people pay it.”

Black said most people use their credit cards to pay “and don’t even think about how much it will cost.”

But Commissioner Nancy Hodges said the city should wait on the increase, and get feedback from the John’s Pass merchants. Commissioner Andrews agreed. “We need to hear from business owners and residents. How many times can we raise the rate? We’re going to hit a breaking point sometime,” Andrews said.

“We need to get the reaction of residents,” Douthirt said.

City-owned parking lots to go cashless

The commission did reach a consensus to convert all parking machines in city lots to accept credit cards only.

Only a small percentage of people using the machines pay with cash, Pierce said. That figure has dropped from 10 percent to less than 5 percent in the past year, he said.

Pierce said collecting and counting the coins is difficult and cumbersome. It takes three people and 10 to 15 hours a week, he said.

There has already been a trial period at Archibald Park with credit cards only, and that has worked out well, city officials said. The targeted date for making all city parking machines cashless is June 1.