On Thursday afternoon, the Fort Myers Beach Town Council held a workshop with four members present. Council member Anita Cereceda was excused as she is attending a tourism conference in Orlando. At the workshop, they came to an agreement on the budget for the coming Fiscal Year based on a millage rate of 0.8 – a budget they would move to a second and final public hearing at their meeting later that evening. They also reached consensus to ask for the public’s input for a new sign in front of Town Hall and to renew Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert’s contract for another year.
During public comment, Little League Vice-President Charlie Whitehead expressed major concern with a proposed fee increase for the rental of the fields at the Bay Oaks Recreation Campus.
“The Bonita Springs Little League is charged way less than this, and I’m pretty sure they’re not being asked to pay rent on buildings they themselves built,” he said. “For Fort Myers Beach Little League, this fee schedule is a death knell. We expected someone to come to us and ask us to talk about it, and if the town wants to discuss the nature and amount of fees at Bay Oaks, I believe the community is willing to do that. But adding a new slate of fees two weeks prior to the adoption of the budget is not a conversation, it is an edict.”
Property owner Jerry Prosnick said his taxes would be $40,000 for his “two old beach houses.”
“The fire department charges $4,000 for my house!” he said. “For what, 27 fires? The sign out front isn’t that important – do you need the money for it that bad? And we don’t need another code enforcement officer to check garbage cans, either.”
Town Hall Sign
First on the agenda was the current sign in front of Town Hall, which all council members expressed their dislike for at their last meeting on August 22.
Council member Tracey Gore said she thinks that now isn’t the time to spend money on a new sign. Vice-Mayor Summer Stockton agreed, but said she’d like to see something new eventually and would like it to be similar to the new signs going up at Newton Park “to match the new branding” of the Town.
“Until we get the money, can we put the old sign back up?” she asked. Public Works Director Scott Baker replied that both the old Town Hall sign and the old Bay Oaks sign are made of Styrofoam as they were meant to be temporary.
Baker suggested using staff time to get an idea of what the new sign will cost and different options regarding designs, materials, etc. to determine exactly what Council wants to see.
Boback said he’d still like to get the public involved. Council agreed, and asked Town Clerk Michelle Mayher to put a notice on the Town’s website asking that all design ideas be submitted to Baker within 30 days. They also asked that the address – 2525 – be placed on the doors of Town Hall until a new sign is constructed.
Fee Schedule, Operating Budget and Millage Rate
“As far as the fee schedule goes, any new fees included are not included in next year’s revenues – so if we do no fee changes, the budget remains the same,” said Interim Town Manager Jim Steele. “Some of the Council’s budget was thought to be excessive, so we reduced travel, eliminated the printing of brochures and increased the funding for the Town’s advisory committees.”
“I think it is very, very important that we keep what we got, so I increased stormwater maintenance from $50,000 to $150,000,” Steele continued. “At Bay Oaks, we reduced the number of part timers and added a director and the cost only went up $93. We received a grant for maritime control, and at the Mound House we are losing a part-time employee – Parke Lewis – and gaining a full-time employee, and they adjusted their own finances to account for it.”
“In short, we were able to add a second code enforcement officer and a director for Bay Oaks while still keeping the mil rate at .8.”
Stockton thanked staff for their hard work in eliminating unnecessary spending, saying the budget is ‘excellent’. Gore agreed.
“This is a win-win, as we didn’t rollback, but we didn’t increase either,” she said.
Town Administrative Services Director Maureen Rischitelli explained that the fees to rent the fields at Bay Oaks ($150 per day) have not been raised.
“Little League always had a special agreement where they were not charged any fees for the fields or the concession stand, negotiated by the Town Manager, as both Beach Soccer and Little League are services provided by those organizations,” she said. “The fees are for field rentals from out-of-town teams only.”
Gore asked if anyone had approached Little League to discuss fees, and Maureen said no. Council then asked staff to continue with the special agreement between Little League and Beach Soccer.
Council member Rexann Hosafros asked if the situation at Newton Park would be “the same as Bay Oaks.” Currently, those teaching classes inside the historic home of Jim and Ellie Newtown are charged 25% of the amount paid by those participating. The new schedule would change that to $65 for the first hour of rental, and $55 for each hour thereafter. For the outside patio/lanai area, the new fee will be $30/hour. The rental fees are lower for non-profits and Fort Myers Beach property owners.
“With regard to the agreement with the Florida Communities Trust, we are to provide education and outside activities, but to recoup our costs associated with air conditioning and cleanup, we needed that situation to change,” Rischitelli replied.
“I have been contacted by those who teach classes at Newton who say they will stop teaching there should the fees go up,” Hosafros said. “I pay more for classes there than at Bay Oaks, and I don’t think it’s fair to treat them differently. I would like to grandfather in the people who are already using the place, just like we’re apparently grandfathering in Little League and Beach Soccer.”
Mayor Dennis Boback asked how much staff time is involved, and Maureen said ‘minimal’.
Gore and Stockton agreed with Hosafros, and consensus was reached to grandfather in the three people currently conducting classes at Newton Park.
Town Attorney/Legal Services
Mayor Boback asked Steele to come up with a better format for Town Manager/Town Attorney evaluations.
“Are you in favor of keeping Dawn (Lehnert) or do you want to go in a different direction?” he asked his fellow council members.
Gore said she’s not sure, saying perhaps the Town needs a law firm rather than one person.
“We have so many lawsuits,” she said. Hosafros replied that most Town lawsuits are handled by the Florida League of Cities.
Stockton said it’s only been one year since Council decided against the firm idea, and she’d like to continue with a single attorney. Hosafros agreed, saying firms represent many types of people and may have conflicts, adding that hiring Lehnert has saved the Town ‘many thousands of dollars’.
“I’ve been very happy with Dawn’s work, and I want to keep her,” she said.
With Boback also in agreement, consensus was reached to continue with Lehnert for another year, to provide her with a list of goals, an evaluation after six months and to give her a $500/month raise – meaning the monthly cost for her services will increase to $7,000. Council will officially vote on her new contract at their meeting on September 22nd.
Keri Hendry Weeg