‘There’s strength in numbers’
Greater Pine Island Civic Association's Wilkinson discusses islands’ incorporation
According to Greater Pine Island Civic Association Board President Scott Wilkinson, the incorporation of Pine Island would afford islanders the ability to restore local control. Lee County seemed to be receptive to putting a non-binding referendum to incorporate Pine Island on the November General Election ballot, he said, until they told him he would have to meet with County Manager Roger Desjarlais.
The GPICA was told it would have to update the feasibility study, which would determine whether incorporation would be affordable, since the study was already three years old. In determining how much it would cost to take over services currently being provided by Lee County, Wilkinson said he feels the numbers were inflated.
“They put their thumb on the scale … pretty heavily in fact,” Wilkinson said. “We were told we’d have to take over the park in Matlacha and the park in the center of Pine Island. They deal with street lights, which we have on the Matlacha Bridge and traffic lights — we don’t have any.”
Wilkinson said the items mentioned would tally up to approximately $700,000 or 30 percent of the proposed municipality’s operating cost.
“We went from having a million dollar surplus, like we did in 2017, to breaking even,” Wilkinson said.
He said they were told the referendum would not make it onto the ballot because the county didn’t feel the island could afford it. Wilkinson said it was then that he explained registered voters should make the decision about whether they feel incorporation is the right move for Pine Island. He said if they had a chance to break down the vote by precinct, the number of people who actually want to incorporate could be determined. Since, he says, the island is a donor community, incorporation would cause the county some loss of income. The idea, he added, of having the community take over caretaking of its own parks is a brand new one.
“We thought the presidential election would be perfect, because that’s when most people are going to vote,” said Wilkinson. “We even offered to pay to put it on the ballot in Spanish and English and they wouldn’t do it.”
Although the proposed charter on the GPICA website lists the incorporated name as ‘The town of Pine Island’ as far as the names of island communities, such as Matlacha, Pineland, Bokeelia and St. James City, Wilkinson said they all have their own federal ZIP codes and would therefore not be affected by incorporation, without being changed by the federal government.
“Right now,” said Wilkinson, “we’re simply known as part of unincorporated Lee County. That’s our official name, but the names of the little townships aren’t going to change. Incorporation would certainly stop Cape Coral from trying to annex Matlacha, but to me the biggest problem is that the county is not responsive to our needs. They don’t take care of us and they’re never going to stand up for us against Cape Coral. The fact is there are 90,000 to 100,000 voters in Cape Coral and 7,000 to 8,000 on Pine Island and Matlacha. So who are they going to listen to?”
Wilkinson said the next step toward incorporation is to try to work with local politicians, although they are still trying to work with the county, he said, adding that everyone won’t be happy to hear they are not giving up. He applauds locals who regularly fight for the island, naming attorney Mike Hannon in particular, but says it’s simply not a sustainable strategy to expect the community to pay to stand up to Cape Coral.
“The best representation of a community are the people who live in that community,” Wilkinson said. “Obviously we’d like to work with the Matlacha Civic Association for incorporation. That’s why we wanted to do the non-binding referendum. Let’s find out what the voters think.
“It doesn’t really matter what the civic associations think — the board of directors, and the small number of people showing up to meetings. Let’s let the voters decide. That would have been something both civic associations could have worked on,” Wilkinson continued. “I’d love to work with them on something. The idea that there are two communities, never really existed before. Matlacha and Pine Island were always solid. We were one. Then this wedge was driven which I think was artificial. We’re naturally allies. We’re in this together, so it breaks my heart to think that Matlacha wants to go it alone because we’re much stronger together.”