A grassroots group has formed to consider the incorporation of Lehigh Acres and it held its first meeting Saturday, March 1 at Lehigh Senior High School. At least 78 or more people attended with some coming for a short time and leaving while others spent an hour and a half listening to experts discuss what it takes to incorporate a community like Lehigh Acres.
The meeting was sponsored by the Community Council of Lehigh Acres and the Kiwanis Club of Lehigh Acres. Both presidents, Tami Miller for the Council, and John Graham for the Kiwanis, were on hand, but took no part in the program. Both organizations have stressed that both groups are neutral and that those who came to the first meeting to hear about an attempt to incorporate will form their own separate group with its own leaders and subcommittee members.
Although Moderator Alex Dworzanski, of Lehigh, an employee of the Lee County School District, said he would have like to see more people attend, the attendance was likely smaller because of a special festival at Harns Marsh on Saturday that was being held at the same time.
Dworzanski thanked both Graham and Baker and their organizations for supporting the group and helping to find a venue. At a smaller venue, the 78 people who attended the meeting would have seemed large. There are few places in Lehigh where a crowd of that many and more could meet.
Dworzanski, who introduced three guest speakers, asked those in the audience to sign up for nine subcommittees on forms that were taped down on the stage. He said from those committees, each will chose a chairman and that person will serve on a steering committee. From them, someone will be asked to become chairman of the new incorporation drive. It is the third attempt to incorporate Lehigh. The other two were poorly done and were only straw votes asking voters if they wanted to put the incorporation issue on the ballot.
There was never a straight ballot up and down question such as Do you want to incorporate Lehigh?
But Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann, who was one of the three who addressed the audience, reminded everyone that in the last straw vote around 13 years ago, was very close.
"The conclusion was only 4 percentage points, 48% voted no to 42% voting yes," he said.
"Today Lehigh has changed drastically with a large increase in its population. That has come about despite the Great Depression which began in 2006 and hit Lehigh harshly.
Dworzanski said the people of Lehigh need more information and that the people of Lehigh should face the incorporation question with an open mind.
He said a feasibility study must take place first and one of the requirements in it is that the community that seeks incorporation must have 1.5 person per acre. He noted that could have a direct effect on the boundary lines that may be chosen since much of Lehigh is remote and few homes are built in the outlying areas of Lehigh. It was a statement brought up by the three guest speakers, too.
No questions were accepted at the first incorporation meeting. Dworzanski said this first meeting was for informational purposes only and that questions would come at later meetings once the organization is in place.
The three speakers included Bill Spikowski, well-known consultant to cities and counties in the state; Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann; and Steve Hunt of Lehigh who owns a business in Fort Myers and is the past chairman of Business People United for Political Action or BUPAC in Fort Myers and currently is its speakers chairman.
Mann said up front that at the last effort to study incorporation, he had suggested that the straw vote on the ballot only ask if the question if voters wanted to see an up and down question yes or no on the ballot.
He said that today that if he lived in Lehigh Acres, he would vote to incorporate so the community could rule itself.
He made it clear that the Lee County Commission has nothing to do with incorporation and he noted that much of the monies from taxes would come to an incorporated Lehigh and not to the county. He also noted there were other forms of income for an incorporated Lehigh.
He noted that the last attempt to Lehigh was spirited and stirred up an ugly controversy, not unlike other attempts to form cities in Lee County over the years.
Spikowski said Fort Myers was first incorporated in the 1800s and that the county was Monroe and later, Lee, Collier and Hendry counties were separated from Monroe County, whose county seat was in Key West.
He noted that Fort Myers Beach had made two attempts before to incorporate and a third which brought cityhood to the beach community. He said Sanibel incorporated in 1974 "angrily breaking away from Lee County." He also said that Estero is now in the mood to incorporate and that it seems cityhood will take place.
He noted that there a community must contain 5,000 people to incorporate; Lehigh is believed to have a population of around 100,000 people today.
He noted that there is a rule that there must a two-mile boundary between another incorporated city such as Fort Myers, but that Lehigh residents shouldn't be too concerned because the Legislature can do away with that requirement.
"Without the industrial park on your western edge, your tax income would be affected," he said.
He also noted that an incorporated city of Lehigh would receive large amounts of gas tax revenues from the state which sends it to the county and the county must pass on a share to incorporated cities. There are other tax revenue incomes that would also come to the new city through such monies as cigarette taxes and others. This would be in addition to local real estate taxes.
He noted that in order to incorporate, the people of Lehigh must convince the local Legislative Delegation and if it agrees, then it would go on the ballot and the delegation would take the cityhood request to Tallahassee and the Legislature would pass legislation to create a new city.
There must be a charter and documents about the type of government Lehigh would choose (mayor, city manager, number of council members, etc.).
"Your biggest hurdle here is you would have a meager tax base from residential areas due to the lower ad valorem taxes which came about during the recession.
"You have a huge issue here of streets and roads improvement and while the county is set up to maintain them, it could continue with an agreement with the city.
The current MSTU tax base would go to the city rather than the county. He noted that county zoning would not change up to at least three years and people would continue to seek building permits from the county.
Commissioner Mann, who lives in Alva, and represents District 5 which includes Lehigh, remembered there were four percentage points that killed the straw vote seven years ago. He told the audience that today they have "a lot more going for them" today.
As far as the fire district, the lighting district, the East County Water Control District and the FGUA water and sewer utility, Mann said they are already Lehigh governments in place. He noted that a future city of Lehigh could take them over and run all under one umbrella.
"I have said it; if I lived here, I would want us to rule ourselves. I would want more control over my destiny," he said. Mann told the group to go and get the documents prepared by others such as Estero who are soon to become a city and also to get the documents from Sanibel.
"It's all in those docs for you. It won't cost you to prepare. You won't have to re-invent the wheel."
Steve Hunt spoke briefly and said it was time to make some decisions.
"We need to give accurate information to the people. This is a long term event," he said.
He urged everyone to become involved and to tell their friends, family and neighbors to become a part of the movement.
He also said there would be grass roots events to raise money to support funding it will take to incorporate.
Dworzanski, who could become the group's leader, but no mention of that was hinted, at the end of the meeting asked the people "to band together."
"Our children and grandchildren and the future of Lehigh deserves that," he said.
To view the statue regarding incorporation in Florida, readers can go online to: www.flsenate.gov/Laws/Statutes/2011/165.061.
Dworzanski said the question of incorporation could be on the 2016 ballot, and if passed, the local Legislative Delegation in Southwest Florida would take a bill to Tallahassee and the Legislature would move to make Lehigh a city.