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Cape budget hearing set for Thursday

By Staff | Sep 2, 2016

Although City Council is taking Monday off in observance of the Labor Day holiday, members will be busy at two special meetings scheduled for next Wednesday and Thursday.

Thursday’s meeting is the first of two public hearings required to finalize and adopt the city’s Fiscal Year 2017 operating budget that goes into effect on Oct. 1. Unless changes are made in the public hearings, council is expected to approve adopting the millage “rollback rate” of 6.5702. The “rollback rate” calculated by the Property Appraiser’s office is the rate that will generate about the same revenue for the city as last year after taking into consideration that Cape Coral property values rose by 8.37 percent.

Councilmember Richard Leon has been a proponent of the “rollback rate” all along, but would like to see small cuts made elsewhere.

“When they ask me for cuts I’m looking for a few,” Leon said. “We just sold city property at Veterans and Santa Barbara for $1 million and that goes into the general fund, so we can find other places to cut.”

He wants to look at capital expenditures and selling off more land, but he views the increase in the stormwater rate as necessary.

“Many of the culverts, particularly in the north section, are in really bad shape and we have to replace them,” Leon said. “Stormwater has been a problem for 20 years and we have been balancing the cost with reserves. Even smaller cities are charging $130 to $160.”

City Manager John Szerlag factored in a 6 percent increase in property values when putting together his initial budget proposal that included a .207 reduction in the millage rate. Adopting the “rollback rate” instead means the ad valorem millage rate will be reduced by .3868 for 2017.

“I was the guy that had to gut the budget in 2009 and raise the millage rate to offset the decrease in property values,” said Councilmember Jim Burch. “It feels good now to be able to reduce some of that. I intend to complete that this year and next. We don’t need the money. We can always spend it, but the question is do we need it?”

The ad valorem reduction will be offset by increases to non-ad valorem assessments like stormwater fees, solid waste removal, vacant lot mowing, wastewater and irrigation collection costs, and the Fire Service Assessment. The Public Service Tax, on electric bills, will remain at 7 percent.

“I’ll support the PST and FSA for now, but we can’t continue to raise them every year,” said Burch. “The communications tax is consumer oriented that goes to everyone. Homeowners can’t pay all of those, so we’ve got to spread those around.”

The FSA rate of recovery so far is unchanged at 64 percent although the actual fee is proposed to go up slightly. The Public Service Tax will be kept at 7 percent after council members toyed with the idea of reducing it to 6 percent.

“I’d still want to see the Public Service Tax reduced by 1 percent,” said Councilmember Jessica Cosden. “That’s not new, and I don’t know if I can take credit (for the idea) but I’ll push for it. I’m also open to other changes.”

Cosden said she wants to see other reductions in spending if it can be done, but still keep paving streets and such.

“This is my first budget cycle, so I have not experienced it all yet,” Cosden said. “It was great to hear from the Budget Advisory Committee, but I’d also like to hear what other council members have to say.”

Last Monday, council approved the stormwater rate at $87; solid waste fee at $181.13; vacant lot mowing fees at $65.54 for District 1 and $51.10 for Districts 2-4; and set the FSA rate at $122.60 for everyone plus $2.40 per EBU for improved property with structures.

Szerlag’s proposed budget has reached a total of nearly $670 million.

The budget continues the city’s road paving ($6.5 million), capital maintenance ($789,000), street light installation ($100,000), and median improvements ($306,000) spending level for 2017. It also includes money for construction of Fire Station 11 on Burnt Store Road at NW 11th Street and a fleet maintenance facility to replace the Everest Parkway facility.

The budget also adds 17 full-time positions to the employee ranks, with nine of those firefighters to staff the new fire station.

This is the third time in four years the city has reduced the property tax rate. The millage rate stood at 7.957 in 2013. Reductions include a .250 decrease with implementation of the Public Service Tax, a .750 reduction with the FSA court ruling last year, and the proposed reduction this year.

Tax bills start arriving in mailboxes in November.

Wednesday’s special workshop meeting starts at 4:30 p.m. in the Nicholas Annex building. Thursday’s meeting starts at 5:05 p.m. in Council Chambers.