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Council, staff wade through budget

By Staff | Aug 21, 2015

Members of the Cape Coral City Council, along with the Budget Review Committee, had a lot of questions during two days of workshops for the 2016 Cape Coral city budget Wednesday and Thursday at City Hall.

The workshops used a unique format where the BRC also sat in and were allowed to ask questions with council, which brought a new dimension to the workshop.

At the beginning of Wednesday’s workshop, City Manager John Szerlag celebrated that this will be the first budget he’s worked on “with stable financing tools.”

Szerlag said he will have all three components of his “three-legged stool” approach and that he has achieved all the goals he wanted to reach for the city since taking over as city manager three years ago.

But there was some balking on the council and the BRC, from the spending of reserves to the proposed street lighting program.

Szerlag’s three-year rolling budget will feature revenues of $154.45 million and expenditures of $161.38 million. In terms of revenue, $74.3 million will be collected through ad valorem, $7.2 million from the public service tax and $19.6 million from the fire service assessment.

The budget also proposes to use $6.9 million of reserves, leaving the city with $36.11 million in reserves, or roughly three months which is more than the two months Szerlag has said should be kept on hand.

This led to a lengthy discussion about what to do with what could be $12 million in available funds.

Councilmember John Carioscia saw it as an opportunity to do things to help the city, while Mayor Marni Sawicki and Councilmember Jim Burch said they would not touch the reserves, which were meant to be there for when the next fire station is ready to be built.

“We owe it to future councils to keep that money. Three months is standard for many cities anyway,” Burch said. “It’s not play money.”

Financial Director Victoria Bateman said it was up to council to decide what to do, on one condition.

“You can do whatever you want up to two months. Beyond that and I’ll have to break fingers,” Bateman joked.

“Looking at the three-year budget, we know what we need over time. We can look at capital needs and do capital catch-up – which we will need for a long time,” Szerlag said.

Among the highlights of the proposed budget are $6.5 million in road paving, $5.2 million in vehicles and equipment, $4.7 million for a fleet building, $1.3 million in maintenance, $500,000 in alley improvements, $331,000 for Fire Station No. 11, $325,000 for a sign shop, $300,000 in median improvements and $100,000 for street lights.

The net effect on Cape Coral families will change. Those on the lowest end of taxable housing value will face an average impact of $137.47, an increase of $20.48 from last year.

Those with average or above average homes will pay about the same ($148.37 and $148.44, respectively) and high value homeowners will pay $157.85 more.

Szerlag said Cape Coral is still a value as compared to like cities. City services cost Cape residents $1,412, compared to an average $1,579 among the other five cities, he said.

The fire budget will be nearly $28.09 million and will seek an emergency management division manager in 2016, along with 10 firefighters for Station No. 11 in 2017.

Fire Chief Donald Cochran will also seek $422,397 in capital improvements and hope that the new fire station will reverse the trend of slower response times.

The department fielded more than 20,000 calls in 2014, with only 35 percent being responded to in less than five minutes, far less than the city goal of 60 percent.

Police has a proposed $33.59 million budget, with an earmark for body cameras, which the city will seek full deployment of by 2018.

Councilmember Richard Leon, a lifelong Cape Coral resident, went back to his childhood days and found something missing. He remembered when police and firefighters came to school.

“I remember having fire programs as a kid and they don’t do them anymore. Kids could see a helicopter come in and think it’s awesome,” Leon said. “We should put that in the budget.”

Burch also thought the police should invest more in general community relations.

Public Works Director Steve Neff discussed the proposed new fleet facility, road paving and other infrastructure improvements in his department’s proposed $42.08 million budget.

He said 121 units within his fleet have exceeded their anticipated life cycle and that it would take $2.678 million to replace less than a third of them.

But Councilmember Derrick Donnell was most concerned about the street lighting program. He asked if the city could use more efficient LED lights.

Mike Ilczycyn, assistant city manager, said the city can only get its lights provided from LCEC, but has asked to start a pilot program to put high-efficiency lights in residential neighborhoods.

He added LCEC put in LED lights in an area where they weren’t functional.

“That’s unbelievable. I have a problem with spending money on a program where we can’t save money on. It blows my mind,” Donnell said. “We would like to see those lights in public view.”

On Thursday, the quality of life and administration budget was discussed. Parks and Recreation Director Steve Pohlman requested in his $27.1 million budget $1.4 million in capital spending, $307,000 in pay increases, and $126,000 for Red, White & Boom, which had its own line item for the first time.

Pohlman hopes to start a community garden program and establish a Tot Spot at the Sun Splash waterpark for $550,000.

Speaking of which, Pohlman said the city should have to pay a small subsidy for the water park than in other years, since rain was less a threat than in other years.

“The park wasn’t built to be a revenue producer. We thought about opening on the weekend during the winter and found we don’t have the attendance to justify it,” Pohlman said.

Vince Cautero, in discussing the Department of Community Development budget request of $12.45 million, said he was pleased the proposal included five new inspectors, which will make the ongoing concern about the time it takes to get an inspection done.

“The perception is that it takes longer to get a permit pulled in Cape Coral than in Lee County. That doesn’t cut it for me,” Donnell said. “I hear it takes two weeks to get an inspection here as opposed to Lee County which takes 24 hours.”

“Perception is reality. We have to do something,” Cautero said. “People want these done sooner, not later.”

It was during the administration portion of the budget when the harshest words came from Councilmember Rana Erbrick during Dana Brunett’s presentation for the economic development office.

She reiterated her stance that the city needed to put significantly more funding toward economic development.

“We need to go to Trader Joe’s and tell them our story. If we don’t put resources into economic development, they aren’t going to come here,” Erbrick said. “When I see the final numbers, I want to see a lot more resources put into it. Economic development is job one here.”

Sawicki said it’s time for the city to start thinking big and to start taking advantage of the status Cape Coral has gained through its inclusion in numerous Top 10 lists.

“Trader Joe’s looks at everything. I like single-family homes, but if we end up with 120 square miles of single-family homes, we might as well have residents write checks every year because no business will come here,” Sawicki said.

LCEC came up again Thursday, this time regarding the $2.7 million the city received from it.

Erbrick said she believed the money had already been spent on repaving, when Szerlag said, in fact it had not. He suggested that money be put to other capital improvements since the budget for road paving was already fully funded.

Discussions on the city auditor’s office, stormwater and the UEP occurred after deadline.

The first public hearing for the budget will be Thursday, Sept. 10, where they will set the tentative millage rate and adopt the tentative budget.

The final public hearing will be Friday, Sept. 25, where the final millage will be set and the budget adopted. Both meetings are at 5:05 p.m. at City Hall.