A Marco Island political action committee’s lawsuits against the city, aimed at stopping the mandatory septic tank replacement program, will fail on legal merits but succeed in hitting city taxpayers in their pocketbooks, city officials say.

Marco Island City Manager Bill Moss and city Finance Director Bill Harrison wrote in recent e-mail that legal bills to defend the city against two lawsuits filed earlier this year by Marco Citizens Advocating Responsible Environmental Solutions (CARES) could top $300,000.

“Given the level of legal activity required on these lawsuits, I would project that costs through the middle of May have now exceeded $100,000,” Harrison said.

CARES filed a lawsuit in Collier Circuit Court to stop the move to expand the central sewer system, accusing the city of using inequitable methods for assessments on affected property owners, violating state environmental protection standards by polluting city waterways and other allegations.

The city filed a bond validation lawsuit in circuit court to defend itself against CARES’ contention that the property assessment method being used to charge residents to connect to sewers is unfair.

The city prevailed at that hearing when Collier Circuit Judge Frederick Hardt ruled that the city had met all state legal requirements for determining which assessment method to use and had given the public ample information by notifying affected property owners and advertising and staging public hearings for citizens’ comment.

Hardt also ruled that the court is limited in cases in which a challenge by citizens is made to overturn a legislative act by an elected City Council that is ruled by a city charter, approved under home rule provisions in state law. CARES attorney Sam Gold said the group plans to appeal the ruling.

CARES also filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers, alleging the city violated the federal Clean Air Act when city administrators allowed asbestos concrete pipe to be stored and crushed along South Collier Boulevard and at the future site of Veterans Community Park on Elkcam Circle.

CARES named Moss, Marco Public Works Director Rony Joel, Quality Enterprises USA Inc. of Naples, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in the federal lawsuit.

For the federal lawsuit, Moss and Joel had to hire personal legal representation at the city’s expense. The city also has to pay for representation from a law firm that specializes in environmental law, plus pay the city attorney. U.S. District Judge John E. Steele could rule in June on the case, Moss believes.

Marco Island government has insurance for property and liability claims. The coverage requires that the city pay the first $100,000 in each claim, Harrison said.

“Based on the projected costs for legal services to defend the city, our taxpayers will be responsible for two-thirds or three-fourths of these legal costs,” he said.

The city budget has a general legal services account for paying the city attorney and to cover a limited amount of required outside legal services. Also, the budget has a contingency account to cover expenses that can’t be covered by the legal services account, Harrison said.

“Obviously, when those contingency funds are used for legal bills, they are no longer available to meet other needs of the community,” he said.

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