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Down to the wire: Cape budget gets nod but debate continues into final public hearing

By Staff | Sep 11, 2010

Cape Coral City Council tentatively adopted the FY 2011 budget last week, setting off a fire storm of outrage amongst city employees who could potentially see 6.71 percent in payroll reductions across the board.
As envisioned by City Manager Gary King, these payroll reductions would help to retain the $6.2 million in reserves that was going to be used to balance the budget.
The majority of the proposed reductions would come from Public Safety, as the police department would take a $2 million payroll hit, and the fire department would see a $1.7 million decrease in payroll, if approved as tendered by city council a the final public hearing on Sept. 21.
This newly proposed budget, unveiled by King less then 24 hours after city council’s only budget workshop on Aug. 26, came not only as a surprise to some council members and staff, but residents, too.
King has maintained that payroll reductions do not equal job loss, but his newly proposed budget does not make clear how, exactly, the cost savings will be achieved.
Critics of the newly proposed budget have said the cost savings could not be achieved without affecting service levels and, in some cases, job losses.
Former Mayor Joe Mazurkiewicz said Friday morning that the proposed cuts are impossible to reach without one, or both, of those options.
“It’s a fiscal impossibility,” he said.
King canceled his budget presentation to the Council For Progress Friday morning, of which Mazurkiewicz chairs and, due to scheduling conflicts, could not be reached for comment regarding the budget.
Of the general fund’s proposed $138,244,711 budget, the majority of those funds lie in public safety.
According to King’s proposal, the police department budget is $30,324,014, and the fire department budget is $24,437,007.
The department with the next highest budget is public works, with $10,283,774, followed by Government Services at $5,351,387, and the Parks and Recreation Department at $3,960,994.
The police department is facing nearly $2.1 million in cuts from the previous budget proposal prepared by Carl Schwing, and fire is looking at almost $1.7 in reductions.
All departments across the board would face reductions, with the exception of the attorney, auditor, and city council budgets, which would remain the same.
These changes came as surprise two weeks ago when unveiled by King, who said during the city council’s lone budget workshop that department heads had slashed their departments to the bone, adding that he felt service levels were already being threatened.
Debate among council members during that workshop volleyed the use and purpose of reserves, but when the workshop concluded that afternoon, there was no hint that King had other ideas regarding the use of those reserves.
Yet, even with the proposed reductions, Budget Administrator Sheena Milken, who could not be reached for comment, wrote in an September 2 memo that “it is necessary to recognize that this level of savings may not be achievable and that some use of cash balances might be necessary during FY 2011.”
“It’s highly abnormal,” said former FAC Chairman Steve Riggs of the sudden shift in budgeting philosophy. “And it’s created a schism between the city manager, city council and the employees.”
Riggs said King’s budget plan represents a reverse in budgeting philosophy, in that the budget is now driving the process, instead of the budget being a result of study and work that goes on throughout the year.
While both the King and Schwing budgets might get the same end result, Riggs said, it’s not entirely clear in King’s proposal how he will achieve the proposed cost savings because there has been no visible, public process, aside from the workshop which did not include King’s plan.
“It’s all about how you go about doing it, and how you get there,” Riggs said.
The newly proposed budget will likely increase tensions during union negotiations.
Union representatives and members across the board showed up in force during council’s budget hearing Tuesday, practically begging the council not to approve the proposed payroll reductions.
Cape Coral Fire Fighters Union Rep Mark Muerth said he was confused by the city manager’s budget proposal, and still doesn’t understand why it was released in memo form after the workshop.
Muerth said he didn’t know if it was an attempt to force the unions into positions in which they concede money or look at layoffs, or if it was merely a lack of understanding on King’s part as to the process of union negotiations.
He did say that if the purpose was to “rile” city employees, then he accomplished his mission, but achieved little else.
“I have not been able to establish the logic of putting this out there,” Muerth said.
The Cape Coral Fire Fighters Union is planning their own town hall meeting Sept. 18, focusing on the budget and what Muerth called “real numbers” for the cost of providing fire services to the Cape.
He wants not only firefighters but regular residents to attend the town hall, and wants to answer any questions citizens might have about the fire department, or what it costs to run it.
Muerth said the union has faced three separate labor negotiators in the last nine months, and doesn’t feel there’s been any real progress.
With wage freezes and furlough days, Muerth said, the union has made concessions, but this new budget proposal would not change how the union approaches the negotiations, despite the frustration of dealing with so many negotiators in such a short period of time.
“It’s almost like we’re back at square one,” Muerth said of the process.
Kurt Grau, Cape Coral Police Union representative, could not be reached for comment.
City Council’s next budget hearing is Sept. 21. At that time additional public input will be accepted and council will vote on its final budget document for fiscal year 2011.
As currently tendered in both the original and amended budget proposal, the property tax rate in Cape Coral is proposed to stay the same, 7.9702 mills, or about $7.97 for every $1,000 of taxable property valuation.
The proposed budget for all funds totals $425,723,833, which includes the general, or operating, fund at $138,008,382.