Budget Talks


Town Council got its first close look at the budget for the 2016/2017 Fiscal Year on Monday, when Interim Town Manager Jim Steele and Town Administrative Services Director Maureen Rischitelli presented a preliminary, balanced budget of $20,070,955 – nearly half of which will go to fund projects associated with the water utility.

Steele told Council that Rischitelli would lead the budget presentation as the budget was set before he came on board, though he has looked at it and does have some recommended changes. By law, the tentative millage rate must be set before Council takes their summer break in July, meaning a decision must be reached at their next meeting on June 20th. The millage rate can later be decreased, but it cannot be increased from what is set June 20th.

Maureen told Council she is concerned about the fact that the Town does not have the funds for the badly needed rehabilitation of Time Square – a project estimated to cost $1.5 million (though roughly half of that cost is for new waterlines in the Square, something now covered under the loan the Town qualified for with the State Revolving Fund program).

“We are still working on our Bay Oaks numbers, for this budget we’ve left it pretty much the same,” she continued. “We’ve also provided a total of numbers related to staff, including benefits. We included the vehicle list, too.”


 Town Manager/Vehicles/Fireworks

Councilmember Rexann Hosafros had a question about the amount set aside for ‘contingency’ in the budget section pertaining to Town Manager. This number was $50,000 in the current budget but only $9,000 in the proposed one.

“I’m concerned about that since the Town already owes Stilwell his vacation/sick time – about $50,000 – and possibly more depending on what happens,” she said. Mayor Dennis Boback wanted to know how much those vacation hours add up to.

“The (Stilwell’s) contract allows for one thing, but the action taken last week provides for something else,” Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert said.

“If you increase the contingency, you’re going to have to cut the budget somewhere else or raise the millage,” Steele said. “It may also be possible to provide for certain contingencies before this year’s budget cycle ends.”

Maureen said she’d like to add ‘accrued’ as a budget item so, should another contracted town employee be terminated, the sick/vacation time payout will already be in the budget.

Councilmember Anita Cereceda suggested that future negotiations with prospective Town Managers include the consideration that – though the Town of Fort Myers Beach only has about 6,000 year-round residents, that number swells to 60,000+ during season.

Councilmember Tracey Gore asked about the $90,000 placeholder for a consultant for Grand Resorts, and Maureen recommended that amount be left in the budget ‘just in case’ or that it be placed into the contingency fund, ‘because it’s easier to do that than to add it later’.

Boback questioned the amount of vehicles being used by the Town.

“Community Development has five vehicles – do they use them all?” he asked, and Rischitelli said that Code Enforcement Officer Molly Jacobs needs one at all times, while the rest of that department shares with other departments.

Cereceda asked Steele for an analysis of how many vehicles the Town owns and what their uses are before Council reconvenes in August.

When Boback asked whether or not the Town needs another code enforcement officer, Steele told him that the town is in a hiring freeze.

Hosafros cautioned against the elimination of $1,500 for Keep Lee County Beautiful – saying the county will likely not come down and hand out free trash bags during beach cleanups.

“You need to figure out what events you want to continue with,” Maureen said. “Right now, with Fourth of July fireworks alone we’re close to $40,000 without adding trolleys.”

Cereceda said she believes it’s a poor idea to talk about spending $20,000 for fireworks and not include additional costs the Town must spend on the event like the sheriff, trolleys and the rest.

“We need the actual event cost, and trolleys must be included,” Cereceda said. “What should we be responsible for? All the people – not the party.”

During a discussion on the $125,000 set aside for legal consultation with an additional $30,000 for ‘other legal services’, Hosafros said that – considering the Town currently is involved in four lawsuits – the amount in that section should be as high as possible.

“And that doesn’t even take into account our current situation,” she said.

Councilwoman Summer Stockton agreed, saying she thinks Lehnert should be paid ‘a lot more’ than her current $78,000 salary.

Council asked Steele to increase the amount in ‘other legal services’ to $100,000.


Bay Oaks

Gore said she was looking at previous budgets for Bay Oaks, and that the Town used to pay $400,000/year for the campus, with Lee County putting up the other $400,000.

“When we incorporated, the county paid half of the expenses and we paid the other half,” she said. Cereceda countered that while that is true, the Town’s Parks and Rec budget doubled when the Town took it over completely in 2007. Responsibility for the pool, however, has always been the Town’s.

Boback asked if a replacement for (former Parks and Recreation Director) Randy Norton is in the budget, and Steele reminded Council that the town is in a hiring freeze.

“More has been done with the current team in two months than what I’ve been trying to get them to do all year,” Rischitelli said.

The mayor asked about efforts to make Bay Oaks its own taxing district, and Gore replied that is ‘an outside effort only and not at the direction of Council’.

“I think we need to raise fees, period – if you allocate it by activities than the person doing the activity will pay for that activity rather than have everyone pay for it,” Hosafros said. “Every resident remains a member, but they pay for their particular interest, like pickleball.”

Bay Oaks Fitness and Athletic Director Adam Leicht said that when islanders were charged a membership fee, usage of the facility was nearly non-existent.


Additions to Budget

On the topic of bay and beach accesses – especially Del Mar, Coconut and Hercules – Cereceda said she thinks that subject is so important, she’d be happy to move money from other things like special events.

“The Town’s Comp Plan mandates that we consider beach and bayside accesses – the budget always needs to include this as a line item,” she said.

Hosafros asked what ‘the other side of the table’ (Gore, Boback and Stockton) would say if she suggested raising the millage rate to cover the cost of things like bayside accesses rather than take funding away from other projects.

“I’d rather take care of the residents then spend $50,000 on software,” Gore replied. This discussion went back and forth until Steele asked Council to look at a sheet he’d prepared showing that the Town’s cash position isn’t very strong.

“Maureen and I will try to forecast what the general fund balance will be at the end of this budget year,” Steele said. “We may end up with wiggle room. We need to establish balance reserves of 10 – 20% – we should have $970,000 uncommitted in reserves.”

Steele said that he would add to the budget the items Council wants – these include $100,000 to refurbish the pool deck; $70,000 for ‘other legal’ and $150,000 for bay access improvements.

“I’ll plug those numbers in, look at projected fund balance at the end of this year, what we need in reserves, and based upon that, I will calculate a millage rate that will allow for that without making cuts,” he said. “Then we’ll discuss priorities.”

At the end of the meeting, Hosafros pointed out that – in 2014 – she paid the Town $150 in taxes, where the county got over $800 and the school system over $1,100.

“This is minute, and this is my town which is very important to me,” she said. Gore said there are people on the island who cannot afford an additional $20/year, especially when other things like water bills are also increasing.

At 0.8 mils, the Town’s tax rate is the lowest in Lee County this year: Cape Coral’s rate is 7.074; Fort Myers, 8.776; Sanibel, 2.3105; Bonita Springs, .8173; the newly incorporated Village of Estero’s rate is 0.8398 and Lee County’s is 5.6553.


Keri Hendry Weeg