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First budget meeting for county focuses on how to work together

By Staff | Jan 20, 2009

With Lee County facing a $160 million budget shortfall, staffers and commissioners met Tuesday to discuss … their feelings.
The first of the year’s budget workshops focused not on how best to trim the budget, but how staff and commissioners can communicate better during the process.
Meeting at the Tourism Development Council office in South Fort Myers, commissioners and staff shared opinions and aired grievances, while a moderator recorded those thoughts on a presentation easel pad.
Commissioners Brian Bigelow and Frank Mann were admittedly blindsided by the meeting’s focus, thinking they had come to discuss numbers instead of approach.
“I thought this would be a budget prep meeting … what is the purpose?” Mann asked.
Bigelow called the workshop “unorthodox and unusual,” when he realized hard numbers would not be a topic of discussion.
“I want to be discussing how we are going to keep this ship afloat, fiscally,” Bigelow said. “What is to be gained with this? I’m not interested in pointing fingers at my colleagues.”
Commissioners Bob Janes and Ray Judah agreed they are pleased with the work of county staff, though Judah did say the board is getting “hung up” during commission meetings on what he feels are routine matters.
Tammy Hall said commissioners, at times, go “in five different directions” as they try to best represent their districts. Yet, she agreed with Bigelow, saying both staff and commissioners should “get on with the business at hand.”
According to the agenda, the objectives of the meeting were:
— Enhance line of sight between Board of County Commissioners and staff.
— Gain agreement on how to best work together to deal with the challenges of 2009.
Whether or not an enhanced line of sight, or some sort of agreement, was achieved, talk briefly turned to the budget about 90 minutes into the meeting. Topics including the definition of core services, delay of capital improvement projects and shortfall concerns among constitutional offices were briefly skirted.
Yet, they were left to be discussed at the next meeting, which would presumably focus on numbers instead of professional working relationships.
Mann balked at the sudden switch to budget concerns, especially so late in the meeting.
“Now we’re ending with a budget issue. I’m more confused then when we came in,” he said.
While no specifics on the budget were discussed, nor the date for another such meeting, county staff urged commissioners to clearly define staff’s role in the decision-making process.
Lee County Manager Don Stilwell pointedly told commissioners that staff is merely an extension of their decisions.
“If we’re doing our job successfully, we are an extension of the board,” he said. “Once the board makes a decision, it’s my decision.”
Billed as a “budget approach workshop” in an e-mail dated Thursday, the entire meeting missed the mark for Bigelow, who thought the discussion was more wasteful than helpful.
“I’m disappointed with this workshop … this is a missed opportunity,” he said.