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Council begins discussion on absorbing CRA

By Staff | Oct 16, 2012

Hearing the early reaction from Cape Coral City Council on an ordinance for it to take on the duties of the Community Redevelopment Agency, those within the CRA couldn’t have been very happy.

Although the CRA chairman seemed more than pleased to show what was in store for them.

City Council and the CRA met for the first of two special meetings Monday at City Hall, both armed with their side of how CRA finances are spent.

City Manager John Szerlag gave his view of the CRA – a money pit bloated by overhead costs and a shrinking revenue pool that will be exhausted by this time next year.

“If no changes are made, it will have nothing by fiscal year 2014,” Szerlag said.

He said there would be a transition period of up to six months before consolidation because of severance payments and to determine the kind of service the reconstituted CRA would provide.

Financial officer Victoria Bateman echoed Szerlag’s findings and also expressed her outrage over the use of her quotes during a June 2011 meeting in which she complimented the CRA for its budgeting.

“I didn’t know at the time you were spending your fund balance. The comment was misleading to the council,” Bateman said, adding that at the same meeting that CRA director John Jacobsen said the CRA was going to be out of money in two years if it didn’t do something.

CRA chairman Richard Greer started by commenting, “Amazing how when you get to the courthouse steps it’s time to negotiate,” before saying it’s not about the numbers, but rather about how the city let them know it was over.

“The city manager comes in Tuesday and tells us we’re done. If there was a problem, they should’ve notified us,” Greer said. “If we have a person in our company not doing their job, we take them aside and tell them. We don’t hand them a bar chart and say they’re done.”

Jacobsen’s numbers showed the CRA solvent until 2017, saying they planned ahead when the housing bubble burst, TIF money and all.

“Five years ago, we recognized the TIF money would drop with the economy,” Jacobsen said. “We caught on early and put money away.”

Jacobsen showed how the CRA budgeted all the money it had and only spent less than half every year, and again showed the June 2011 video with Bateman.

That didn’t sway council much. Kevin McGrail said the question is whether to spend what’s left of the CRA funds in overhead or capital improvements.

“Is the purpose of the CRA for the betterment of the area or to provide jobs for administration?” McGrail asked. “It comes down to dollars and cents. We can’t afford the overhead.”

McGrail did suggest an advisory board, similar to the Budget Review Committee, to make suggestions on what to do to make downtown more vibrant.

“I moved downtown because of the CRA. It’s been a productive CRA, but money is money,” said Councilmember Marty McClain, the CRA’s liaison. “What’s next? Capital improvement flatlines after 2017.”

Only Mayor John Sullivan had reservations. Saying he needed more facts.

“Maybe there’s more than meets the eye. I saw data from the CRA and staff with two different results. I want to know what’s going on,” Sullivan said.

The CRA got great support during public comment. Lynn Pippenger, an owner of Dixie Roadhouse nightclub, said they moved to Cape Coral because of the CRA.

“Without the CRA in the middle of town, we would have probably moved to Orlando. It’s important to know what they do,” Pippenger said.

During the regular workshop meeting, Greer showed the council what it had in store for it if and when the board takes over.

He showed a single photo of the area around the CRA offices to show everything it had done, from the paving of Cape Coral Parkway, to the beautification of the medians, to the painted buildings across the street.

“When you talk about overhead, it’s untold hours getting potholes fixed, the center medians, a contractor takes care of them. Overhead,” Greer said. “The buildings repainted, Paint the Cape did that and it cost nothing.”

He also listed the CRA’s accomplishments: the beach at Four Freedoms Park, Mulaga Park, the undergrounding of utilities.

“If this hadn’t been done, you’d still be a bedside resort,” Greer said.

Another special meeting is planned for Oct. 29, with a decision perhaps coming that night.