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County tax rates unchanged although revenue projections down

By NATHAN MAYBERG - | Sep 9, 2020

nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com

The county’s property tax rates will remain unchanged, according to a budget plan presented to the Lee County Board of County Commissioners on Sept. 1 by Peter Winton, Lee County chief financial officer and assistant county manager.

The budget, which was set to undergo a public hearing on Sept. 3, presented the elected board with a number of challenges due to declines in revenue sources, expected drops in property values and major capital projects such as an estimated $16 million expansion of the county’s emergency operations center.

Winton said it was important to maintain capital projects during the economic troubles related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Emergency Operations Center expansion was approved for design last year by the commissioners with an estimated constructed cost of $10 million. The board approved a $1,073,730 contract with BSSW Architects, a company based in Fort Myers which is contracting out part of the work to several other Fort Myers companies. The new estimate for the expansion is $16.3 million.

Lee County Government spokesperson Betsy Clayton said the project is still in the design stage. The construction is expected to take 15 months and will involve an expansion of approximately 10,000 square feet including new offices for the Emergency Management Staff, courtyard space between the existing facility and expansion, bunk room space, vehicular and pedestrian access between the current dispatch center to the Emergency Operations Center facility, structure and foundations for a future second-floor expansion.

“Expansion of the EOC to become the Public Safety Campus will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the building during severe emergency situations and it will also provide a permanent and adequately sized location for the Emergency Dispatch Center currently based in the Public Safety Communication Building (old EOC),” Clayton stated. “The improvements will include moving the Emergency Dispatch Center into the EOC facility, expanding the restroom facilities and adding showers, expanding office space for additional Emergency Management staff with 25-30 workstations and adding a multi-purpose room for 150 people that will include movable partitions,” Clayton stated.

Other major projects in the budget include $105 million for Three Oaks Parkway Extension, $51 million for Corkscrew Road widening, $15 million for an emergency radio upgrade from analog to digital; $5 million for habitat restoration and other mitigation work at Wild Turkey Strand.

The capital budget calls for an expansion of the Three Oaks Wastewater Treatment Plant, with $5 million set aside for this fiscal year as part of a five-year planned payment on the expansion.

The 2020-21 fiscal plan budgets $56 million for the Big Carlos Pass bridge replacement project.

“When the economy dips during a cycle, if the county can keep its capital projects on track, the money that we are spending on capital projects is being reinvested in the economy. It’s paying for local wages, it’s paying for local workers and companies,” Winton told the commissioners.

The county is forecasting a reduction in revenue of about $16.6 million for the upcoming fiscal year based on decreasing sales tax revenue and county revenue sharing.

Winton reported a decrease in revenue this year of more than $24 million due to a drop in tourism including more than $8 million for the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau. Winton and Commissioner Frank Mann said they didn’t expect the losses in the Visitor and Convention Bureau to affect the county’s general fund.

Other revenue dropoffs this year include approximately $7.3 million less in toll revenue between March 15 and Aug. 16, and about $1 million in parks revenue from March 15 to Aug. 19.

The county’s total budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year encompassing all funds is approximately $1.5 billion, county spokesperson Betsy Clayton said. Clayton said Winton was not available to speak about the budget.

The county’s general fund spending of $454.1 million is down from $461.5 million this fiscal year. The general fund budget was $400 million the 2016-17 fiscal year. Of the $54.1 million in increased general funding balance since the 2016-17 fiscal year, the largest share of the increase has been the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, accounting for more than $24 million of the new spending.

The county’s major debt service includes its 2004 downtown Fort Myers justice center and parking garage, and a 2006 county jail expansion and evidence building.

The 2020-21 budget increases pay for most county employees by 3 percent from the general fund.

County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said the raises were fair and perhaps not as much as the employees deserved. Pendergrass said the county is in a better place than several years ago when there were layoffs.

“People didn’t get raises for many years,” he said.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Brian Hamman said “the annual 3 percent is not an entitlement. I will just be honest, I’ve been turned off by employees who have talked to me one on one who have said ‘oh we haven’t gotten a raise in years,’ and I said ‘well you got 3 percent, we’ve given you 3 percent every year since I’ve been here.'”

Hamman paraphrased some employees telling him that’s not a raise. “Yeah, that’s a raise, so I mean I guess I will just get that out in the open that it is a turn-off when I hear that. I think our staff and our employees and our team has worked incredibly hard and have done incredibly great things this year when we’ve asked them to do different stuff than what they would typically do and so I’m happy with supporting it this year. I just kind of wanted to get that off my chest,” Hamman said.

District 3 Commissioner Ray Sandelli said, “I’m very optimistic about where we’re going as an economy once this thing opens up and then you are competing for people.”

The second and final hearing on the budget will take place on Sept. 15.