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With current administrator’s retirement pending, hiring new city manager goal No. 1 for 2020

By Staff | Jan 2, 2020

The year 2020 is shaping up to be a very eventful year in Cape Coral politics, with a myriad of issues that will have to be dealt with in a key election year.

But ask those sitting on the Cape Coral City Council and they’ll tell you the top priority the elected board will have in 2020 is to find a new city manager ahead of John Szerlag’s retirement later in the year.

Szerlag, who took the city from the brink of financial disaster to becoming sustainable while rebuilding its capital, will be a tough act to follow from a fiscal standpoint. The person who takes over will have to take the city to the next level.

Mayor Joe Coviello said the city plans a national search for the right candidate, with the emphasis being on economic development, something that he says remained stagnant during Szerlag’s seven-plus years on the job.

“We haven’t done a good job moving our commercial tax base from 8 percent. With Ricardo Noguera as Economic Development Director, we’re making strides,” Coviello said. “Hopefully, we can take some of the tax burden from the residents.”

Other members of City Council took a similar view, adding they are looking for something special to help the city navigate its massive growth.

“You need a good quarterback and hopefully we can get someone as qualified as John has been,” Councilmember John Carioscia said. “I would like to see someone come in with a strong economic development background so we can put away some of these projects.”

“I’m looking for a visionary who can bring us to the 400,000 max population, who can do what John Szerlag did and do a good job with what he was given with a mayor and council who cut everything,” Councilmember Jennifer Nelson said of the manager’s first years with the city. “I want someone who will know what we need 10 years from now.”

There is much to consider as the new year gets under way.

The budget is always among the biggest issues the council has to deal with, and there are many projects such as Seven Islands, Bimini Basin, and the North 1 Utility Expansion Project (maybe) that are to be considered.

“It’s a continuation of everything we’ve been doing the last couple years. It’s just jumped a little higher up the list,” Councilmember Rick Williams said. “We will get North 1 going if we can ever get North 2 completed. That’s turned into a cluster.”

Coviello said the city took on too much all at once with North 2, and will attack North 1 in smaller portions to make sure things don’t turn into a mess.

Another issue, that stayed at a slow simmer in 2019, is the old golf course which the city continues to consider, but hesitates with all the pollution and clean-up that has to be done there.

“We can’t purchase property that’s undevelopable. We need property we can work on. If it has contaminants and lead. What will it take the clean the soil,” Carioscia said. “Lawyers have told us we can’t buy it the way it is. It has to be remediated or you can’t do anything with it.”

“I want to resolve the golf course and make sure we can purchase it. It’s in my district, so it’s important to me,” Nelson said. “If we purchase it, we can determine what goes there and it would be a huge win for the city.”

Williams and Carioscia said the problems with Matlacha are expected to continue with the planned removal of the Chiquita Lock and possible sale of the D&D property the city bought and looked to annex before an administrative judge struck it down and the city decided to drop last month.

Carioscia said the proceeds from a sale (if passed by council) would go a long way toward bringing the South Cape much- needed parking.

“I think the property is appraised at $6 million. We can take $3 million and build a parking garage on 47th Terrace and build another down by the Yacht Club,” Carioscia said. “Let’s move on and let it go.”

Another issue will be Waste Pro and its collection of bulk waste, something Nelson has worked on since she joined council.

“I want to make sure Waste Pro, if they continue to be our vendor, can keep up with our growth and provide the infrastructure we need to move forward,” Nelson said.

The $60 million GO Bond to fund city park improvements will also be on the front burner with the conclusion of planning and construction expected to begin in 2020.

Coviello said it is time to look at things that have not been accomplished, such as finding a way to make city assets self-sustainable.

“We have to find a way to make charter schools sustainable. The city manager has worked on that, but that’s a problem that has not been solved and we don’t seem to have a solution,” Coviello said. “We also have the subsidies for the golf course and Sun Splash with no clear direction on that. We’ve stagnated on a few of these things.”

Coviello said when a new city manager is named, he wants to hear some solutions to the unresolved issues.

“These are issues that need immediate attention in 2020 and I’ll be looking for a city manager with the strength to be able to overcome some of these obstacles and get these things accomplished in the upcoming year,” Coviello said.