City Manager John Szerlag presented his $146 million preliminary budget proposal to City Council Monday night with great optimism that comes with a word of caution.
"This is an excellent budget," Szerlag told council. "It is one that I am proud of and that staff is proud of. It has been a long time since the city had a budget that moved the city forward. It's not a one-year budget either, but a three-year plan for economic sustainability."
The 2015 budget targets a millage rate reduction of 0.750 mils, lowering it from the 2014 rate of 7.7070 to 6.957 mils and completing a 1 mil rate reduction over two budget cycles that was promised when the Fire Service Assessment (FSA) and Public Service Tax (PST) were approved.
The FSA methodology used to determine the assessment amount, however, is being challenged in court. The Circuit Court approved the methodology, but a group of citizens who filed the challenge chose to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. That court has not yet ruled and is due to take its hiatus on Aug. 1.
Szerlag's timeline for final approval starts with council adopting the tentative millage rate and Public Service Tax rate (7 percent) in August and the final millage rate by mid-September. The 2015 budget cycle goes into effect on Oct. 1.
"I will be asking for the millage rate to stay at 7.7070 if the FSA case is not solved," said Szerlag. "The final millage rate can be lower than that, but if we set the lower rate now, it can't be raised."
Szerlag's proposed budget includes a 5 percent increase in base salary for city employees, who have not gotten an increase for seven years. It also includes a capital funding plan as well as reinstatement of a streetlight program, parks master plan, plan for Bimini Basin and Seven Islands in Northwest Cape.
Council asked for a budget workshop session with department heads to gauge their needs and discuss funding options for the near future.
Even before tackling the budget, council tried to salve several anxious citizens who were concerned about an investigation into a recent incident of a Cape Coral police officer using excessive force on a 20-year-old man that they feared might get swept under the carpet.
Councilmember Rana Erbrick was most vocal in asking the group to be patient and assured them the investigation would be proper and released to the public when it is completed. Citizens mentioned the need for the civilian review board that was recently disbanded. Erbrick reminded them the review board had no powers to investigate, only to review the investigation report when it was finished.
Chief Bart Connelly offered to show anyone the process involved in internal affairs investigations by contacting his office for a meeting.
Council voted on several annual resolutions, among those to set the residential solid waste assessment rate and the vacant lot mowing service rate.
The vacant lot mowing rate is slightly lower than last year in all four mowing districts. District 1, which is the most built-out area, will see a rate of $28.13 for next year. The rate homeowners pay in District 2 will be $20.92 while District 3 and 4 lots will be assessed $20.91. The same two contractors once again will provide the mowing services. Those rates are subject to final approval by council and still could decrease further.
Homeowners will see a slight increase in the residential garbage rate for 2015. The service provided by WastePro will cost residents $163.43, a $13.64 increase over the current amount being paid. Of that increase, WastePro receives an increase of $1.22 per home. Like the vacant lot rates, the amount is subject to final council approval at an upcoming meeting.
Mayor Marni Sawicki shared her experiences from attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors recently in Dallas. While there, the mayors were shown an LED light bulb presentation prepared by Philips Lighting, including possible ways to use LEDs in the city's streetlight program.
"Fort Myers Mayor (Randy) Henderson and I will be discussing ways our two cities can partner to make a program like this work for our cities," Sawicki told council. "Both cities struggle with ways to fund streetlights."
Sawicki produced two residential LED bulbs to show council members.
"These things cost just $9 and they last for 22 years," she said.
Sawicki also presented videos for an anti-bullying campaign, the Shriver Report initiative to help single mothers and an unveiling by Google that showcased their Driverless Car Project.
She also gave highlights of a water council, climate protection agreement and women mayors meeting.
Council's next meeting is Monday, July 28.