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Cape budget discussions commence

By Staff | Aug 9, 2018

Two joint budget workshops between the Cape Coral City Council and its Budget Review Committee were an exercise where both looked at numerous “what-if” scenarios through the eyes of a computer model and lengthy discussions.

But a few things stood out at the sessions held Tuesday and Thursday at City Hall.

The City Council has little desire to subsidize the Cape Coral Charter School System with the BRC recommending a nuclear option in its report.

A majority on the elected board also wants to bring in more code enforcement officers to address the many violations residents say they see on a daily basis as well as hire grant writers for the Fire Department as it could result in a “great return on investment.”

City Manager John Szerlag presented the funding core of the proposed General Fund budget of $211,642,492: a property tax rate of 6.75 mills with a “rollback” rate of 6.4402; a 62 percent cost-of-operations fire service assessment and a public service tax on electric bills of 7 percent, the current rate.

One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of taxable valuation. The “rollback rate” is the rate at which the same amount of revenue would be raised from property taxes.

Peter Napoli of Stantec, formerly Burton & Associates, brought the computer model and showed the council and the BRC real time results of any variable they could come up with over a 10-year period.

When it showed a proposal for the municipal charter school system getting $3 million in assistance by having the city to take over some of the services, there was disagreement.

“There needs to be another revenue source for the charter schools. I really don’t agree with bailing them out,” Councilmember Rick Williams said. “Without that $3 million we look pretty good. But we can’t anticipate what the economy will be.”

Szerlag said the city’s charter schools system isn’t a mom-and-pop operation anymore and is being challenged to change its business model to fulfill the city’s insistence it be self-sustaining.

“There’s this rural/urban continuum. We’re not a small town but we continue to be like one even though we’re grown. No ordinance has said the city will not fund public schools,” Szerlag said.

When George Starner, chairman of the BRC, made his group’s recommendations Thursday, it went one step further, saying the system should consider shelving the high school in favor of another elementary school.

Starner said educating high school students is a financial loss of $2,234 per student, with its inability to fill the school, creating a total burden of $330,000 per year.

Since the elementary and middle schools have waiting lists, it would make sense to turn the high school into one or the other.

The city is expected to finish its best-practices tracking of the charter schools in January.

In the General Fund budget there are 28 new full-time employment positions proposed. Most are new school resource officers required by the state.

Some city council members want to see additional code enforcement officers added to the new positions list.

Department of Community Development Director Vince Cautero showed his proposed budget on Tuesday, which called for only one new position for a code enforcement officer.

That’s not enough, some on the board said a the first workshop.

“We have had an increase of 75 percent in population, but code enforcement isn’t keeping up. They want more code enforcement on Chiquita and Skyline. The optics speak for themselves,” Councilmember John Carioscia said.

“Code enforcement always comes up at town meetings. There’s room for improvement because this is a quality-of-life issue,” Councilmember John Gunter said. “We need to be proactive and reevaluate.”

On Thursday, Szerlag said he found the money by taking money from the General Fund and putting it into the building fund.

Also questioned early on was funding for Public Works’ sidewalk program.

Councilmember Jessica Cosden, upon hearing the city funds its sidewalks entirely through grants, said she found that unusual.

“I want to see us start budgeting for sidewalks instead of using just grants. We’re a big city,” Cosden said.

“I’ll see that and I’ll raise you streetlights,” Councilmember David Stokes said. “We have kids walking to school in the dark. We have $100,000 budgeted for lights. Can’t we take some money out of paving and into lights?”

He wanted to see more invested in streetlights, since many kids go to school or wait for the bus in the dark, Stokes said

Stokes was told that LCEC only has the capacity for $200,000 per year, or about 350 to 400 streetlights, though some money could come from the transportation fund up to $100,000.

Those discussions morphed into the importance of grant writers, people who can get money from non-profits and state and federal governments for things the city needs.

Ryan Lamb, chief of the Cape Coral Fire Department, said he has been looking for a grant writer and said they are worth the investment.

Mayor Joe Coviello said he wants to push the button for grants because there are so many that the city may be missing out on.

“We have missed out on a few of these grants. There is so much money that can be obtained. Is there any way we can have one for the city?”

“It’s one of the best returns on investment a city can have,” said Gunter. “They pay for themselves if you have a writer with the right skills.”

A third workshop will be held Aug. 23.

Public hearings will be held Sept. 6 and Sept. 20 at 5:05 p.m. in council chambers.