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Council passes tentative budget, millage

By Staff | Sep 11, 2015

Coming up with a tentative budget proved to be a little more difficult than passing the millage rate as the Cape Coral City Council held the first of two public hearings on the 2016 budget Thursday at City Hall.

The city council voted 7-1 to pass the $197 million budget, even though questions on how the city should handle funding for the Community Redevelopment Agency, charter schools and the self-insurance pool persisted.

City Manager John Szerlag presented council with a plan on how to spend funds brought in from the $2.7 million LCEC lawsuit. The largest expense was the $850,000 to fund the city’s self-insurance program.

Szerlag said for a city the size of Cape Coral, self-insurance makes sense. Council wasn’t quite as sold. Eventually, Szerlag put that money toward future projects such as Bimini Basin, the Seven Islands and a master parks plan.

“Council is doing a great job determining issues that will benefit the community,” Szerlag said.

One of the most talked about issues was the charter schools and the fixes that are badly needed in the buildings, which are owned by the city, and was not in the list of nine things identified by council as needing more funding.

It was enough for Councilmember Lenny Nesta, who serves as a liaison for the charter schools, to give thumbs down to the budget.

“We need to change some of the supplementals with the CRA and the charter schools. I don’t want to say I approve of the budget if I don’t agree with parts of it,” Nesta said. “I fight for our charter schools, we brag about our charter schools. Ten years ago there was no money for the charter schools. Things change. I’m looking for us to put some money into our buildings.”

Most of council joined the fight for the charter schools.

“The charter school system has become the shining star of the city. They have passed the test and we must make sure they survive and thrive,” Councilmember Jim Burch said.

Council eventually voted unanimously to put $100,000 toward fixing up the schools and requesting the city manager reevaluate the lease agreement apart from the budget vote.

“I like to have a plan and extrapolate what the cost will be for certain facilities over a number of years and have an idea of what those costs will be,” Szerlag said.

As for the CRA funding, it got a rave review from resident Neil Smith during public comment. The CRA is saddled with the undergrounding debt until 2024 and said the city had an obligation to help pay the debt.

Among the other requests made included $720,000 toward the fire fleet, $400,000 for paving, $250,000 for the economic development office for marketing and travel, $150,000 for a Bimini Basin project manager, $100,000 each to outsource median mowing and other improvements and streetlights, and $30,000 for Good Wheels.

The city council needed but a few minutes to set the tentative millage rate at 6.957, which is .75 less than the current fiscal year. With the previous millage reduction of .25 mills from the year before, the rate will drop the 1 mill promised as one part of the “three-legged” stool of financial diversification. The other two components are the public service tax and the fire service assessment.

Councilmember Rana Erbrick said the budget battle is going exactly as she expected it to; not as easy as it sounded.

“Because we have more breathing room, it wasn’t going to be as easy as it seemed because it’s easier to say no when there’s nothing there to spend,” Erbrick said. “We’re struggling to find the best use of the dollars we have.”