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Lee County could face $100M deficit in 2010

By Staff | Feb 25, 2009

There are dark days ahead for Lee County. Currently in the midst of a $45 million budgetary shortfall, the county is now facing a deficit that could exceed $100 million for the next fiscal year.

While no concrete numbers exist, county staff warned commissioners on Tuesday that a debate of core versus non-core programs will be the battlefield by which the deficit lives or dies.

Bus fares and routes, libraries, major maintenance and capital improvement projects like the North Fort Myers Rec Center could all become victims of the budgetary crunch.

Some things might be pushed back, while others – like the cancellation of bus routes, or 72 county jobs left vacant – could be held over indefinitely.

Work on the 2009 to 2010 budget begins in June, leaving commissioners to contend with what appears to be a tough finale to an already difficult fiscal year for Lee County.

Dinah Lewis, of county administrative services, said “significant changes” in primary revenue for the 2008 to 2009 fiscal year have thrown the county into the midst of the current situation.

Totals for primary revenue loss presented by Lewis to commissioners totaled $53 million for the 2008 to 2009 fiscal year. Lewis said the number would come down to $45 million once property taxes had been mostly collected by the end of March.

Lee County Manager Don Stilwell said staff is merely presenting a “snapshot” of the budget situation and, as of yet, no services have been reduced.

“We’re being very careful not to be precipitous… we’re monitoring the revenues very carefully,” he said.

Proposed cuts by county staff include the Lee County Board of County Commissioner’s operating budget, which totals $19 million; operating budget construction projects totaling $9 million; major maintenance projects totaling $2 million; and capitol improvement projects totaling $16 million.

Commissioners deferred decision until late March or early April, after property taxes have been collected and a clearer view of actual revenue would fall into place.

Commissioner Tammy Hall, in particular, wanted a concrete look at the numbers she would have to use to make decisions.

“I can’t get behind this because I can’t see where the money is coming from today,” Hall said of the proposed cuts. “We need to take some time to absorb what we’ve seen here today.”

With the 2009 to 2010 budget shortfall looming, Commissioner Brian Bigelow questioned the validity of such major expenditures as the new Red Sox stadium – the total cost of which has yet to be determined.

Bigelow, along with Commissioner Frank Mann, have long questioned the county’s benefits of the newly signed Red Sox lease, which effectively keeps the team in Lee County for the next three decades.

“We need to be thinking about looking at this Red Sox deal with a new pair of glasses,” he said. “I don’t relish trying to justify this outrageous expenditure.”