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Cape officials: City Council did what it had to with budget

By Staff | Oct 5, 2017



Cape Coral City Council was looking to lower the property tax rate, perhaps to the rollback rate.

Hurricane Irma blew that idea out of the water.

In the end, the Cape Coral City Council voted this week to approve a 2017-18 budget that featured the same 6.75 millage rate as last year, but lowered the Fire Service Assessment from 64 to 59 percent recovery of the cost of operations.

For many on the Council, it was a bitter pill to swallow, as neither the millage nor the FSA passed unanimously.

But faced with an expected expense of $4 million spent due to Hurricane Irma, with much more expected in the future, the $3.1 million the city would get from those rates would help tremendously in replenishing its disaster fund, which has been depleted, officials said.

Councilmember Richard Leon, who was a proponent for the 6.3433 rollback rate until Irma, said it was unfortunate the city had to leave the millage unchanged.

“Maybe things would have been different if Irma was the first hurricane and not the second; we may already have FEMA money coming in,” Leon said. “We don’t know when the FEMA money will come, and what’s going to happen next hurricane season and we still don’t have the money?We would have shortfalls.”

Councilmember Jessica Cosden said the Council made the right call in supporting the 59 percent fire assessment recovery rate if they couldn’t lower the property tax rate.

“The 59 percent means that middle and lower-income homeowners will have less of a burden, and that’s why I fought for it,” Cosden said. “Just because the value of people’s homes went up, doesn’t mean incomes did. We really need to replenish our disaster fund.”

Councilmember John Carioscia said the budget was fine, until he learned of the potential $12 million to $15 million it would cost to repair the city after Irma. This made lowering of the FSA no sense.

“They should have left it at 64, but that’s just me. I’d rather have the money there and then next year do the millage rate enough so that we can give the money back,” Carioscia said. “What are we going to do if we need another $8 million?”

Not everyone thought the city needed to hold the line at 6.75 mills. Councilmember Marilyn Stout said she would have liked to see the millage cut to 6.60 while keeping the 64 percent FSA. It would have allowed the city to keep its promise of lowering the millage while keeping the certainty of the FSA.

Stout voted against the 6.75 millage, but it passed 6-2. The 59 percent FSA just barely made it, with the vote of 5-3.

Mayor Marni Sawicki said she would have liked to find the $3 million necessary to deliver the goal of a 6.50 millage City Manager John Szerlag championed throughout much of the budget process.

Mayoral candidate Joe Coviello, who served on the Budget Review Committee, agreed some expenditures could have been cut without sacrificing city services.

“We budgeted for road paving and rolled over $1.7 million from last year into this year. We also had $300,000 in median enhancements,” Coviello said. “We just had Irma and we’re cleaning up the median.”

Mayoral candidate Michael Hollow said he wanted to treat the budget more businesslike so everything is in line. He said the city did a good job in adding emergency funds, but should have added more in traditional reserves.

“We need to take a harder look at the FSA and Public Service Tax and not leave the burden on ad valorem,” Hollow said. “I would like to see $5 million earmarked for emergencies.”