After almost two years and lengthy debate during the city council regular meeting Monday at City Hall, council agreed to pay nearly $800,000 for the mitigation of scrub jay habitat in Alva with money from the general fund.
But it wasn't without a fight from Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz, who motioned to continue the discussion until March to determine if mitigation could be paid for with 20/20 Conservation fund money or by getting help from other sources instead of using city property tax revenues.
City business manager Mike Ilczyzyn told council he met with the conservators of the 20/20 funds and submitted his questions about the fund in writing. He said he was awaiting a response.
Chulakes-Leetz urged council to hold off.
"There are avenues that haven't been addressed. With a new board of county commissioners, we need to do more work," Chulakes-Leetz said.
Chulakes-Leetz again questioned the legality of the ordinance that created the 20/20 fund, quoting the ordinance as to what its function is, and reiterated his stance that since 1997, Cape Coral residents have put $71.5 million into the fund, while getting virtually nothing.
"I can go to East Lee and enjoy the 2-0/20 funding, but I live in Cape Coral and choose to spend my money here," Leetz said. "Is 20/20 legal? Let's take them to court. If we can get $71.5 million, there's your capital improvement money, Mr. Szerlag."
He also made the suggestion the city go into mitigation with Charlotte County, which has a similar problem with the bird, an endangered species whose habitat, by law, must be protected either through non-development or by creating suitable habit for the species elsewhere.
The city previously chose the later option, which will allow development of its planned Festival Park. Paying for the creation of habitat on conservation land in Alva also will allow the city to obtain a blanket mitigation permit, meaning individual lots owners, would the bird families move from the Festival Park site owned by the city on to private property, would not need to individually pay for mitigation to build.
20/20 conservation land purchases are funded with tax dollars collected countywide. The tax was previously voter approved.
Chulakes-Leetz motioned to put off the vote until March 4, after a week of workshopping. Mayor John Sullivan seconded the motion.
The rest of council wasn't so moved. Councilmember Marty McClain said every avenue had been looked into and that time was of the essence.
"This is a federal mandate. We're providing the scrub jay a place to flourish, and it's an insurance policy for the city," McClain said. "We as a governing body have an obligation to move. I know more about this bird than about my own family."
"Continuing could put the agreement in jeopardy. We could be in a position to start over and I don't see U.S. Fish and Wildlife waiting," Councilmember Kevin McGrail argued. "Putting this off would be counterproductive."
Chulakes-Leetz was unswayed, saying, "We're not doing the job representing Cape Coral if we don't ask questions. We'll let the vote go 6-2 and there's $5.5 million per year going over the river. I'm tired of it."
City financial manager Victoria Bateman said that by litigating or putting it off, it could cost the city $8 million, since it would negate the agreement made between the city and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife over the 215 acres off Pine Island Road that will become Festival Park and is occupied by the endangered birds.
"The interest on the money will pay for the maintenance of the land in perpetuity," McGrail said. "On Jan. 1, 2012, Cape Coral residents won't have to look for scrub jays if they want to develop."
Council voted 6-2 against continuing to March, then voted in favor of the ordinance 6-2, with Chulakes-Leetz and Sullivan voting against.