In the first public candidate forum for candidates running in the March Town Council election, all five candidates offered answers to some tough questions.
Hosted by Island residents, Doris and Joe Grant, Deb Groll, Judy Haataja, Becca and Morey Nakaya, a group that hosted three forums a year ago for council candidates, the forum at St. Raphael’s Church drew approximately 75 people last Thursday evening.
Seated alphabetically, Bruce Butcher began, telling the crowd that he’s owned property on Fort Myers Beach since 2004 and lived here full time since 2011. He’s volunteered for numerous community groups, including the Local Planning Agency, Audit Committee and a citizen’s advisory board for the Metropolitan Planning Organization. He holds a finance degree and spent many years working for a major auto supplier.
“My focus is on the budget and budget process,” said Butcher. “If we improve the budget process, setting goals and objectives, it will give us a better handle on building a budget to meet those objectives.” He went on to express concern for the condition of the downtown area and opportunities to improve it.
Anita Cereceda began by giving a bit of personal background. “I’m 4th generation native Southwest Floridian. My great-grandfather emigrated here form northern Spain. I own two small businesses, one that my parents opened in 1985 and Local Color that I opened in 2003.”
Her biggest concern, she said, was summed up by someone who recently spoke at a council meeting during public comment and characterized Fort Myers Beach as being on a precipice. “We were very much on that precipice when we incorporated 20 years ago. We find ourselves in that same sort of position now. Where are we going? What will Fort Myers Beach look like 5-10 years from now?”
Forrest “Butch” Critser acknowledged that he is not a politician, but said he is someone who loves Fort Myers Beach and has lived here for 13 years. Retired after 30 years as a preacher and 10 working for Sears & Roebuck, Critser said he thinks the Town needs new leadership for a brighter future.
He mentioned what driving onto the beach looks like now with empty storefronts and said he wants to encourage responsible growth and get the government working for the people instead of dictating to them.
Joanne Shamp said she has bachelors and masters degrees from New York University and is a scientist by heart. She described coming over the bridge and buying a beach cottage 13 years ago and her involvement in local issues and volunteer efforts including the Marine Resources Task Force and Local Planning Agency.
“I fell in love with the Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan. When people say we need to change, I say ‘What needs to change?’” said Shamp. “We have a product that works. We need to enforce our codes and follow our Comp Plan and follow government lite.”
Ber Stevenson introduced himself telling the crowd he was born in Chicago and established a business there. He has been a permanent resident of Fort Myers Beach since 2005. “Since then I’ve seen I don’t know how many sunsets; I try to catch one every night. I ran last year as a write in and I did get 51 votes. I hope for a little bit more this year.”
Stevenson’s concerns include construction issues-dirty streets and sidewalks. “Construction needs to be speeded up, cleaned up. We don’t even know if Estero Blvd is going to function properly.” In a point he would make several times Thursday evening, he called for more money for the town from Lee County.
What is each candidate’s stance on developing town-owned property at the end of streets for general public usage?
Cereceda responded by quoting the Comp Plan that calls for enhancing neighborhoods with neighborhood parks, working with the neighborhood. She added that some neighborhoods have wanted a park, some have not.
Critser, Butcher and Stevenson all agreed that the neighborhood should be consulted.
Shamp also quoted the Comp Plan, saying it was very clear and she was totally opposed. Requesting neighborhoods can work with the town if they want a park. “It’s high time for the council to stop discussion of the use of TDC funds in our neighborhoods. Tourist Development means just that. Our town is a good host to tourists and visitors from around the world. We need to respect our neighborhoods and provide (non-neighborhood) parks for visitors with services.”
Does the apparent mid-season slump with decreased visitor counts mean decreased tax revenue?
Cereceda acknowledged the concern. “I was at a TDC meeting and 46% of hoteliers in Lee County are reporting low reservation rates. “ A lot has to do with the impact of last year. Road construction had just started; water quality was horrific. I received a lot of emails that said ‘we’re not coming back.’”
She said she is also concerned about the Lee County owned lot that formerly held Seafarer’s, which the county has said will continue to be used as a staging area for road construction. ‘That means it would be there for the next 7 years. It’s our front door and it’s blighted. It looks derelict. What I hope to happen is we encourage revitalization of the downtown area.”
Critser agreed that the revitalization of downtown is critical. “We can’t afford to lose any more business.” He added that the town needs the water, drainage and road projects. He compared the town’s current status to the I-75 widening project of a few years ago or the north end project. ”It’s going to be great when it’s done!”
Shamp said that some of the problem is a lack of respect shown for the town and lack of proper dialogue before construction began to maintain a safe place for pedestrians and bike riders. She was hopeful that once construction moved south of the downtown business area, word would get around and people would return. She cautioned that Islanders should work together to get through these challenges and not let the community be torn apart.
Stevenson wants to speed up construction, use alternative methods like trenchless technology. He urged that the downtown area be cleaned up.
Not excusing the problems on the beach, Butcher commented that there are several factors involved, including warmer weather up north compared to last year. Parking, he said, is one of those problems. “We have limited parking, scattered all over the place. No one knows where to park…on top of that we have parking meters connected to the Internet or space satellites that allow people to get tickets…businesses are alarmed that this is driving away day visitors…there’s much to be improved to welcome tourists.”
What would candidates like to see done with the Seafarer’s property?
Stevenson said he wanted it turned over to the town and noted all the traffic studies already done before suggesting a people mover or Ferris wheel for the location.
Shamp wants a conversation with the county to create a welcome area if it is not used to benefit traffic. She and other candidates said they had been expecting the area to be part of downtown redevelopment.
Butcher suggested a joint county, town, FDOT plan for a gateway. If that were not possible, he’d like to see the land be part of downtown redevelopment.
Cereceda stated that the Seafarer’s lot by itself is “dysfunctional.” She’d like to have a genuine conversation with Lee County. “They are killing the goose that laid the golden egg. I don’t think they’re doing it intentionally, but steps have been taken recently that have harmed this town…Until we can get everyone in the room with egos left at the door in order to have an honest discussion, nothing is going to happen. We heard at Monday’s meetings that there is a (redevelopment) plan that doesn’t involve Seafarer’s. We’ll be left with a pocket. It needs to be part of a bigger picture solution.”
Do candidates favor changes to the short-term rental ordinance?
Both Shamp and Cereceda explained that the current short-term rental ordinance could not be changed due to state law. If the town were to make any change to it at all, the entire ordinance would be negated and the town would not be able to enact any rental restrictions.
Referencing the number of town employees and vehicles, how would candidates reduce the size and cost of town government?
Stevenson agreed that there were “a lot of extra vehicles at town hall, adding that he didn’t know what happened, commenting that there were a lot of good employees. He said it “wouldn’t hurt to analyze everybody’s function and payment and see if reduction should be made without destroying people’s lives and their livelihood.
The small percentage of property taxes that go to the town, about 5%, was emphasized by Butcher. “95% is going somewhere else.” He added that the number of employees increased when the town decided to insource the water department and Beach & Street Enforcement (BASE), plus Bay Oaks.
Cereceda commented, “We’ve taken on Bay Oaks; we brought in water and BASE…we’ve brought these people in to lower the cost of these services.”
Shamp responded to the question by citing a need for fiscal responsibility. “We take in $2.5 million in ad valorem taxes and have $3.4 million in salaries going out…we need to get real serious, real fast.”
Are town taxes too low to allow the town financial flexibility?
Critser said he’s not going to be asking anyone to pay more taxes.
Shamp is in favor of cutting spending. “We have a $22 million budget and we’re bringing in $2.5 million. We have to cut spending and get tough with ourselves.”
Stevenson’s solution is to “get more money from Lee County…it’s a shame how much we send to Lee County and how little they send back to us.”
Butcher explained that the $22 million budget includes the water and other big capital projects. “The general fund is about $8 million; $2.7 million is coming from taxes, with the balance from state, county, TDC and gas tax.” He said he would like to look at benchmarking – analyzing how other municipalities manage similar challenges.
Cereceda said, “We’re a barrier island community; you deserve cleaned streets, trash cans that don’t look like crap. In order to do better, you have to pay for it…The Town of Fort Myers Beach impacts your tax bill in a miniscule way and we deserve better.”
Who currently on council would the non-incumbents feel they’d vote most in line with?
Butcher responded, ‘Rexann’; Critser said, “Anita” and Stevenson said, “Joanne.”
The public is invited to attend the following planned candidate forums: Estero Island Taxpayers Association forum on February 20 from 6:30-8:30pm at the Fort Myers Beach Woman’s Club, 175 Sterling Avenue and Commotion by the Ocean forum, sponsored by the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, held at the Fish Tale Marina Propeller Room, 7225 Estero Blvd, behind Santini Marina Plaza on Thursday, March 2 from 6:30-8:30pm.