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Date of Issue: April 28, 2005

Consolidation needs to be discussed again says BIEO

Like the freeloading uncle who refuses to leave despite constant rejections, the issue of consolidation for Anna Maria Island has never really disappeared.

Now some members of Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials believe it's time to revisit the issue, or at least discuss consolidation.

At the April 20 BIEO meeting in Anna Maria, Holmes Beach Mayor Carol Whitmore, in agreement with Anna Maria City Commissioner Linda Cramer, suggested that at the least a "straw poll" of Island voters be conducted to determine if residents want any consolidation.

"I've been around politics since 1991," said Whitmore, "and it's never gotten anywhere because everyone has their own power center."

Indeed, previous attempts to consolidate Island police forces, public works and building departments have had all the success of an air conditioner salesman in Alaska.

"Every city is so different," Whitmore continued, "but maybe the citizens should have a vote.

"What everyone's afraid of is to give up a city's individuality," she said, suggesting that possibly each city retain its own comprehensive plan, but consolidate other services.

It doesn't make economic sense to Island taxpayers to have three police forces within seven miles, three public works department within seven miles and three governments within seven miles, Whitmore observed.

"Maybe if we research the issue and talk some more, we can give something to the public to make an intelligent decision. It just makes sense to at least try. We all spend too much [taxpayer money] within seven miles."

Anna Maria Mayor SueLynn endorsed at least the concept of consolidation, but suggested each city keep its own government, but have one Island manager and one public works department.

Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie agreed with consolidation. Three budgets combined would save a lot of taxpayer money and eliminate the need for three city planners, three city attorneys, three engineering firms and three separate city governments.

SueLynn suggested the BIEO discuss the issue again at its May meeting, this time in depth.

"It will be No. 1 on the agenda," pledged Chappie, whose city will host the next BIEO meeting. Maybe consolidation is an idea whose time has come, he suggested.

In other business, the BIEO heard a presentation from Lee County Public Safety Director John Wilson about lessons learned from Hurricane Charley. The hurricane struck the Fort Myers area last August, but largely bypassed Anna Maria Island.

One of the major problems Lee County encountered was getting accurate information to the public, Wilson noted.

This was particularly important when the storm "wobbled" to the right and deterred from its projected path toward Sarasota as a Category 3 hurricane.

While Lee County officials saw the move and predicted the storm would make landfall near Port Charlotte, they were unable to act. They had to wait six hours before the National Weather Service in Miami officially revised its forecast.

"We only had one-and-a-half hours before the storm hit" after the official NWS predication, Wilson indicated.

"There wasn't much we could do. That's just not enough time."

Many barrier island residents, particularly on Captiva and Boca Grande, refused to evacuate because they believed their house was "strong enough" to withstand the hurricane, he said. Those people learned to their dismay that they were wrong, but Lee County then had to deal with all the people who remained on a barrier island and were then without basic services or even access.

In addition, a lot of Lee County residents believe they went through a Category 4 hurricane without any problem. "They didn't," said Wilson, because the Category 4 winds of Charley only extended out about 6 to 12 miles from the center. People living 20 to 30 miles from the storm center experienced little of the $8 billion in wind damage the storm caused in Lee County.

He also noted that the biggest killer wasn't wind damage or storm surge, but carbon monoxide poisoning from people who used gas generators inside a home.

But Sanibel Island was a success story, he said, and Anna Maria Island would do well to copy that city's example.

Sanibel evacuated early and set up a temporary city hall at a mainland hotel. Wilson suggested each Island city be at the same hotel in a hurricane evacuation to coordinate information and deal collectively with the problems.

In addition, Sanibel held a daily briefing on the mainland to impart accurate information to its city residents, and prepared an information packet on what to do when residents were allowed re-entry to the island.

Sanibel elected officials kept up a Web page on the status of the damage and re-entry, and greeted returning residents as they crossed the bridge back into the city. The city also established an "insurance village" for all insurance adjusters.

That was a success, Wilson said.

What didn't work so well, he noted, was the loss of Internet service to most barrier island residents, the different curfews for each city in the county, school shelter operations and cell phone service. Only AllTell wireless customers were able to use their cell phones immediately following the hurricane.

The biggest lessons for Anna Maria Island to learn, Wilson said, are to motivate people to evacuate and study the Sanibel model for dealing with an emergency, if and when it happens.