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CRA to retain two contract employees

By Staff | Jan 23, 2013

One by one, downtown businesspeople walked to the podium to state their case as to why CRA Economic Development Director Helen Ramey should be retained by the new CRA along with her assistant Phyllis DeMarco.

The CRA board listened. And by a 6-1 vote, and despite protestations from the acting CRA executive director and the board chairperson, the two will be retained until the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30, at which time they will be evaluated.

The decision will cost the cash-strapped CRA about $62,000 to the end of the fiscal year, but the board is gambling that Ramey’s “intangible value” will be worth it.

Ramey and DeMarco did not comment following the vote.

The vote also squashed City Manager John Szerlag’s request to have city staff assume CRA duties.

To many on the board and in the standing-room-only crowd that crammed into the CRA office conference room downtown, the value of having a jack-of-all-trades working with downtown businesses and personalities trumped dollars.

“She helped us iron out issues we couldn’t move forward with. She got everyone in the room with different personalities,” said Lynn Pippenger, owner of Dixie Roadhouse on Southeast 47th Terrace, about Ramey. “I don’t know how you’ll replace the heart she brings.”

The 30 minutes downtown businesspeople used to sing the praises of Ramey had an impact that trumped Szerlag’s lengthy discussion on who on staff would handle what responsibility and Business Manager Victoria Bateman’s numbers crunching.

“This is nothing personal against Helen. It’s an economic recommendation. Cape Coral has some hard decisions to make,” Szerlag said. “The issue is economic sustainability and what do you want from the CRA.”

Board member Chris Chulakes-Leetz, admitting he is a “tightwad” fiscally, said the numbers didn’t add up when you consider the many hats Ramey wears and the historical perspective she brings to the job.

“I just want to make sure we don’t lose valuable information that will go out the window,” Chulakes-Leetz said, who then asked Szerlag how much time he had spent talking with Ramey or DeMarco.

“Less than an hour,” Szerlag answered before adding, “I spent more than 50 hours with city staff, which spent hundreds of more hours on this. I asked them if they could absorb the extra work and they said yes.”

CRA chairperson Rana Erbrick championed the executive director, repeating the mantra of fiscal sustainability. Still, the turnout from the community was all some CRA commissioners needed to see.

“The turnout should tell you there is an interest in the CRA moving forward. If you look at all the responsibility they’ve taken on, what ill will would we foster if we cut this off,” board member Kevin McGrail said. “Helen will transition us into the better CRA. It’s a good investment.”

Mayor John Sullivan asked if the CRA was “throwing a million-dollar asset away to save $55,000.”

CRA attorney Dolores Menendez said another issue was their contracts, which include two months of severance in the event they are fired without cause. Ramey’s contract expires on Nov. 1, just after the 2014 fiscal year begins, which meant her contract could be allowed to simply expire, taking the city off the severance hook.

DeMarco’s contract does not expire until March 2015, making the case a little more dicey. Still, the board decided that $62,000 wouldn’t break the CRA, and voted 6-1 to keep Ramey and DeMarco on, with an evaluation come budget time, to the glee of those in the room.

Erbrick cast the lone no vote. Derrick Donnell was absent because of a prior commitment.

The staff will not be involved in the CRA process.

The CRA also voted 7-0 to move to a CRA-owned building on Chester Street, with a bigger meeting room, and 7-0 to sub-lease their current CRA facility on Cape Coral Parkway, which they have a lease to until next January at a $5,500 a month price tag.

But keeping Ramey on board made the 3 1/2-hour meeting worth it.

“We are excited we are going to have Helen down here at least for a while. She’s our go-to gal,” Pippenger said. “We’re in the process of developing a half-dozen events and Helen has been a huge help getting us organized.”

The next meeting will be on Feb. 19 at 5 p.m. at a location to be determined.