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Cape budget, tax rate, get first nod

September 6, 2012
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

There were plenty of good seats available for the first of two public hearings on the 2013 budget Thursday at City Hall, a fact that made a couple city council members a little dejected.

But those who came had their opinions, wore their florescent-colored Tea party shirts, and got their voices heard.

Meanwhile, the votes to set the ad valorem tax rates and the dollar amount of the budget were 6-2. Final approval is expected at the Sept. 20 meeting, when the public will have one last say before council votes.

About three dozen citizens filled council chambers, many of them regulars against the proposed 7.957 millage rate and the near $460 million budget.

A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of taxable assessed valuation. At both the current and proposed rate - no increase in the rate is on the table - that would be $7.957 per $1,000.

Citywide, valuations have increased slightly, meaning even at the current rate, the city will give in an estimated $2.5 million more in tax revenue, the heart of the debate.

"I think people aren't here because they're too busy struggling and don't understand it very well," said resident Chris Cammarota. "Revenue diversification should be new money from new sources, not new taxes on the same people."

It was a sentiment Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz echoed.

"I'm disheartened by the public participation in managing our public finances," Leetz said. "We have no efficiencies. In some cases I agree. Most,I don't."

Chulakes-Leetz grilled Cty Mnager John Szerlag as to whether he has a contingency plan.

"Former city manager King had three tiers of options. Do you?" Leetz asked.

"No, the budget is balanced," Szerlag replied. "Our infrastructure is $75 million in the hole. We can meet with council and set priorities."

Chulakes-Leetz said he would not support the budget as tendered.

"Government will take more if we allow it. I'm sick of government taking more," Chulakes-Leetz said.

Mayor John Sullivan sided with Chulakes-Leetz on the issue of taxes.

The rest of council took a different view on the numbers.

"You have to run a city. The offices have been stripped," Councilmember Marty McClain said. "I support the millage rate. There are things we need to replace."

"We need to provide services or cities fall apart," Councilmember Kevin McGrail said. "It's an increase of $19. We're a safe clean city that provides services. Without police or fire, people won't move here."

McGrail stressed the need to fix the roads and repair the air conditioning system at City Hall now before it becomes a much bigger expense later.

"I want to vote against it, but I can't. We have a $14 million gap, we have a $75 million gap, all these gaps," Councilmember Derrick Donnell said. "When you cut services, you'll see this place packed. What's next? Outsourcing police?"

As far as efficiencies, suggestions were made such as bringing in Lee County Sheriff's deputies to help with law enforcement and using reconditioned police cars.

Chulakes-Leetz, who was not happy that firefighters couldn't mow the firehouse lawns to save the city $20,000, made the boldest statement to local fire union president Brendan Fonock.

"I would give you 125 more people if you support the city manager in having a volunteer fire department," Chulakes-Leetz said.

Fonock, who said Cape Coral started with volunteers and continues to use volunteers, said in today's world, that isn't possible for a city the size of the Cape.

"The way our city is and our demographics, it'll be tough to go volunteer," Fonock said. "Would you want someone cutting the lawn and not be able to hear the radio for a call? We have people to cut the grass."

Chulakes-Leetz then turned his attention back to Szerlag.

"You said you'll do what the majority of the elected body dictates. It sounds like the city manager of 2004-06 when he said he would do the will of council," Chulakes-Leetz said. "That worries me."

"Any professional manager will do what the majority of the governing body wants. That's part of the job description," Szerlag said after the hearing. "That was more directed at the governing body than at me."

Chulakes-Leetz and Sullivan voted against the ordinances that tentatively set the property tax rate and the budget. Those in the fluorescent shirts were not happy with the council split.

"What I heard was a total lack of responsibility on the part of six of the council's part," said Steve Lovejoy, chairman of the Board of Republicans in Cape Coral. "We've looked at this millage rate. It was 5.9 previously and we're trying to hold them accountable and bring it down."



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