Attendees of the March 8 Marathon City Council meeting were met with a testy evening between citizens and council members as discussion of Marathon’s special taxing district, the deteriorating Coco Plum Drive bridge, and the new sign ordinance dominated the majority of a three-hour meeting.
Councilman Dan Zieg opened the meeting by proposing an end to the Middle Keys Health Care Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU), arguing that when added to money collected so far by the taxing district, independent contributions north of $23 million have far exceeded Baptist’s initial ask of $15 million from the Middle Keys community and $10 million from the taxing district.
“These are trying times for people,” said Zieg. “They’re struggling to make ends meet, raise their families and pay their rents and mortgages. I think that the community of Marathon has taken the pledge of $15 million and upped it significantly, in addition to the MSTU.”
The council also heard from Habitat for Humanity of the Middle Keys’ executive director Chris Todd Young, who relayed one of many community accounts of billing issues in which a two-hour stay in the Fisherman’s ER turned into a bill of $13,452.
Mayor John Bartus and councilmen Steve Cook and Luis Gonzalez admitted that the hospital had several issues that needed to be rectified, but held that voting to end the MSTU before it raised the amount committed would be bad business for the city, even if private community contributions exceeded expectations.
“I just think one has nothing to do with the other,” said Cook. “The hospital needs to deal with some of its billing issues. There’s no doubt no matter which side of this you’re on that there are some issues like every business. I think there needs to be some sort of advisory council, because on our part, I don’t think we do enough to actually monitor this.”
“The MSTU was in the neighborhood of $10 million,” said Gonzalez. “We’re in the neighborhood of $6 million, so we’re still short on our commitment. There have been billing concerns, but you deal with it. To shut the door on D-day is not the right way to do business at any level. I’m open to dialogue on a monthly basis on this issue.”
“I don’t regret any vote ever taken to support this hospital,” said Bartus, before admitting that “serious issues” like a lack of inpatient and pediatric care as well as a tendency for patients with insurance to leave with higher bills. “I’m not ready to give an unqualified yes this evening, as I would like there to be further discussions.”
The council ultimately voted 4-1 to continue the taxing district, with Zieg as the lone “no” vote.
Discussion soon shifted to the deteriorating bridge on Coco Plum drive, with several residents in attendance expressing concern over the bridge’s condition and traffic difficulties due to a narrowing road with inadequate signs.
Director of public works and engineering Carlos Solis said that while the city is in line to receive Department of Transportation funding to replace the bridge in 2026, the department is pursuing grant funding for a total replacement as early as the end of this year. With a potential replacement on the horizon, Solis said he is attempting to avoid spending $400,000 to 500,000 for a temporary repair.
“We’re exploring options to see what’s in the best interest of the city,” said Solis. “We’re either going to make that repair at the end of this year or hold off and start replacing it at the end of this year. … If you wanted to put (other options) aside and go ahead with the repair process, we’re ready to do that right now. We’re just exploring those options.
“We put the barricades out there to put the traffic in a certain portion of the bridge. That bridge is composed of eight individual members, and two of those members on the outside are in very poor condition…but it’s not in danger of collapsing tomorrow or next month or a month after that, or anything like that,” he continued.
“I just want to make sure that the plan is ready to be executed in November if we get denied.” said Gonzalez. “Let’s do what we have to do to get it done.”
Final discussions of the evening revolved around Marathon’s sign code, adapted from the code passed by Monroe County several years ago by city attorney Steve Williams. The new code removes all content-based restrictions from signs, replacing Marathon’s old code that was rendered unconstitutional by a 2015 Supreme Court case.
Following the first reading of the proposed ordinance, Williams received multiple written and verbal suggestions and complaints from citizens, largely revolving around businesses’ ability to advertise with temporary or permanent signs disallowed by the drafted ordinance.
Williams reiterated that his priority was only to pass a constitutional sign code that removed content-based restrictions, while other details could be easily modified at the direction of the council.
“To be clear to everyone in the room … no one in the city of Marathon wants to do this. This was put on us by the United States Supreme Court,” said Williams. “It’s not anti-business community or anyone else. We need to tailor it to fit the city, our norms, our rules and what we’re used to. … But we have to change it, or we are willfully violating the law.”
The council proceeded to workshop concerns brought forward by citizens and council members before unanimously approving the newly modified version of the ordinance. Changes to the second draft of the sign code included, among others: removing of a minimum setback from property edges for some signs; removing language restricting the brightness of LED signs; removing language restricting the height of flagpoles; allowing one flutter sign or other similar banner, pennant, cold air inflatable, or other similar sign per business; increasing the size of allowable captains’ signs on docks and perforated vinyl signs in windows; removing permit requirements for A-frame signs; and increasing the number of temporary signs allowed on a single property from three to four.
Marathon senior gold medalist Rylan Chapa thanks her supporters after being honored with a proclamation by the city council. Pictured, from left: coach Jessie Schubert, Councilwoman Robyn Still, Chapa, Mayor John Bartus. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly.
Ali Adams receives recognition for 15 years of service to the City of Marathon. Pictured, from left: Stephanie LeQuieu, Jennifer Ward, Adams, Martin “Hammer” Runyon. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly.
IN OTHER NEWS:
The meeting began by honoring Rylan Chapa, Marathon High School’s state champion in women’s weightlifting, with a proclamation and standing ovation.The council directed city staff to draft a new contract for Williams with a 20% raise in salary, bringing his compensation closer to that of other municipal attorneys up and down Monroe County. Recognizing his commitment to the city and diligence in cleaning up Marathon’s ordinances, the council offered high praise for Williams’ accomplishments thus far.
“He far exceeds anything that we’ve ever had going on in this building,” said Gonzalez.
“This will not catch him up with the other attorneys, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Zieg.
Parks and Recreation employee Ali Adams was recognized for 15 years of exceptional service to the city. “You were basically the history book for Parks and Rec,” said director of parks and recreation Paul Davis. “Whenever I needed anything, you were there to answer the question. You’re always there to listen, and you keep everybody in line.”The council unanimously approved a request for a conditional use permit to authorize a development at the end of 41st Street Gulf. Unanimously approved by the city’s planning commission at its Feb. 28 meeting, the permit would allow for the eventual development of 14 residential units as well as additional parking spaces.The council unanimously approved the market rate and affordable allocations for the current Building Permit Allocation System (BPAS) period, as well as approval of a resolution to extend the remaining BPAS allocations to 2024 by providing fewer allocations per six-month period.