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Budget, tax rate approved

By Staff | Sep 21, 2012

Citing the need to keep the city’s core services intact, to take action on crumbling infrastructure and needed capital improvements, Cape Coral Councilman Kevin McGrail urged passage of a city budget that adds about $2.4 million in additional revenue from the slight increase in property valuation.

He used his local tax bill to illustrate the impact of council’s vote.

The difference in the tax owed on his Cape home would amount to $19.50, the cost of a pizza, he said.

“This is what I had to pay extra by holding the line. I would have had to pay $12.06 with the rollback,” McGrail said of bumping the tax rate back to the amount to raise the same amount of revenue as last year. “That is not making life or death decisions on if people will stay in our city. What will be is if our emergency services don’t have vehicles that allow us to get to the scene on time.”

Five fellow councilpersons took a similar view.

As a result, city council approved 6-2 a near $460 million budget during the final public hearing on the budget Thursday at City Hall and kept the tax rate at its current 7.957 mills.

A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of taxable valuation or, in this case about $7.96 for every $1,000.

Mayor John Sullivan and Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz cast the dissenting votes.

There were no alone in asking the council to hold the line.

There was a much bigger crowd for this meeting than two weeks ago, and the critics made their feelings known.

“We’re asking you to keep your financial responsibility and go to the rollback rate. There are things you can cut,” said Steve Lovejoy. “It’s an abomination and a sin.”

“Gas is $4 a gallon, milk is $5 a gallon. Do you know what you’re doing?” asked Deborah Ivy. “I’m disgusted. We have empty homes, the city’s not growing.”

Charlie Myers gave rave reviews to Szerlag while urging the council to “man up.”

“For the first time I can understand the budget, though I don’t appreciate the outcome. This is an opportunity for the city to go down the right road. We’re in trouble and we can see the precipice,” Myers said. “Put on the big boy pants and make serious decisions to resolve this mess.”

Councilmember Derrick Donnell said the council has always worn them.

“Everybody just wants to cut something. We’re where we need to be without cutting core services,” Donnell said. “There’s a cost to run the city, and our decisions will require taxes and fees.”

Chulakes-Leetz and Sullivan disagreed. Sullivan’s reasoning was simple the refusal to back down on his promise not to raise taxes.

“I’m committed to not raise taxes. It’s not the time,” Sullivan said. “There are ways to cut back without slash and burn.”

“My concern is government creating backdoor inflation. When it wants to spend more, it devalues it,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “Some members of council view the millage rate as adequate to justify no increase. I won’t feed the monster.”

Chulakes-Leetz also brought up some research he did concerning the budget and its pension obligations.

“We will be out of money by 2018. Over the last seven years, it has taken 21 percent to keep the pension solvent. By 2018, it will take $81 million,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “I don’t have a solution. We made obligations that must be upheld.”

The council soon after made its vote to pass the millage rate and budget, to the chagrin of some of the 75 people in attendance.

City Manager John Szerlag said if the city wants to maintain its level of services over the long haul, the funding must be provided.

“The services we provide has a price tag and once we get a comfort zone on what level of service Cape Coral wants, we need the most cost effective manner in which to get there,” Szerlag said. “And we need to do it with a three-year plan because, if you do it over one year, you kick the can down the road.”

McGrail said he had grown weary of citizens complaining about being taxed to the hilt by politicians.

“These decisions aren’t made by greedy politicians in Washington. It’s the local politicians who drive these roads,” McGrail said. “The taxpayers need to hold our feet to the fire and make sure they’re getting the best return on their investment.”

For Szerlag, that task now at hand is to move ahead.

“It’s time to move forward and look at what we can do for best practices, as well as explore additional revenue sources,” Szerlag said. “We want to make sure Cape Coral delivers services in the most cost effective and efficient manner.”