On Wednesday evening, Doris Grant, Judy Haataja, Deborah Groll, Becca Nakaya, Morey Nakaya and Karen Swanbeck hosted their third candidate forum at Chapel By the Sea where the seven people vying for the two open seats on Town Council – Dan Andre, Dennis Boback, Bruce Butcher, Tracey Gore, Jack Green, Suzanne Katt and Ber Stevenson – answered questions posed to them from an audience of about 40 people.
One of the first questions was about the future of the Bay Oaks Recreation Center and Parks and Recreation in general.
Katt replied that things like parks and rec are benefits to residents, who pay taxes and should get something for it. “I realize that Bay Oaks and the pool cost the town money, but there are no communities where parks and rec create a profit,” she said. “I think we should look at ways to increase the revenue there and use it to its fullest potential.”
Green said that parks and rec, and art, are ‘vital to the fabric of a community’. “We need to embrace that,” he said. “Bay Oaks serves a larger community than just Fort Myers Beach, too – kids come here from all over southwest Florida to play Little League and enjoy the pool. We shouldn’t make them suffer because its not making money.”
Gore agreed, and questioned why Town Council hasn’t reappointed members of the Bay Oaks Recreation Center Advisory Board (BORCAB) so they can continue to meet. “We could do a lot more there,” she said.
Butcher said that his wife loves the pool and suggested that cutting the number of employees at Bay Oaks could be a way to save costs.
Boback said that when the county owned Bay Oaks (pre-2009) the Town’s cost was half of what it is now, with far fewer staff. “I agree we need to keep it as an asset, but it’s expensive, and the Town pays for other things like the Newton House that also operate at a loss,” he said.
Andre suggested the Town hold a referendum to see if residents would be willing to pay a special tax for the upkeep of Bay Oaks.
Stevenson said that one of his proposals is to create a saltwater pool at Crescent Beach Park so that the island could have one definitive source of clean water.
Another resident asked candidates if they had a solution to the island’s persistent traffic problem.
Andre pointed out that all island communities have traffic issues during season and it’s not likely to stop. “When the sidewalk and bike path improvement to Estero Boulevard are finished, that will probably encourage more people to get out of their cars, but the bottom line is people are going to want to drive,” he said. “We could do more to educate visitors and residents as to when is the best time to be on the road – early in the morning or later in the evening – that would help.”
Stevenson suggested creating a big trolley station at the former Seafarer’s Mall property and creating a pedestrian overpass onto Crescent Street. “I’d also like to see more off-island parking,” he said.
Katt said that – if enough people were in favor it – she’d be willing to lobby for tolls at both bridges, with free passes given to residents, business owners and island workers. “This would prevent people from using Estero Boulevard as a shortcut from Bonita Springs to Fort Myers,” she said. “Or, we could come up with incentives to get people to park on the other side of the bridge.”
Green said that ‘everyone needs to relax’. “There are many things we can do to create incremental changes, but nothing is going to fully stop the traffic problem unless we do something like build a catapult from San Carlos Island,” he said, laughing. “Maybe we could get the Hooters girls to serve wings and beer while we wait?”
Gore said that’s why limits on density are built into the Town’s Land Development Code (LDC). “There’s been traffic here all of my life and it’s still here,” she said. “But really, it’s worse in Fort Myers.”
Butcher said that traffic is created by congestion from the Lani Kai to the bridge and suggested eliminating left hand turns in that area and controlling when and where pedestrians cross Estero.
Boback said there is nothing that would fix the traffic problem.
One thing that most of the candidates agreed on is that they would not like to see Council terms extended from three years to four (one of the proposed amendments to the Town Charter that residents will vote on March 15), except for Butcher who said he ‘wants to serve so it doesn’t matter to him’, though he does agree with the two-term limit currently in place.
Another proposed Charter amendment – the elimination of the three-year limitation on Town debt – divided the candidates, with Green, Butcher and Katt in favor and Gore, Boback, Andre and Stevenson against.
“If you have the ability to borrow long-term, you can get a better rate and save residents’ money on things like their monthly stormwater utility charge,” Green said, echoed by Katt and Butcher.
Boback presented the opposing side by saying that eliminating the limitation would be ‘like giving Council an open-ended credit card’, and Andre and Gore suggested putting any projects requiring long-term debt to the voters via referendum.
Keri Hendry Weeg