Council Candidates at EITA Forum

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The five candidates for three seats on the Town Council of Fort Myers Beach election engaged in a friendly debate before approximately 60 residents, sharing the dais at the February meeting of the Estero Island Taxpayer Association (EITA) at the Fort Myers Beach Woman’s Club on Monday, February 20th.

On the topic of ‘No Taxation Without Representation’ and the EITA, Anita Cereceda said “regardless if you are a customer in my store or visitor or you’ve lived here for 50 years or in a condo for two months a year, I make my decisions the same because all those people play a big part in our community.” Bruce Butcher has sympathy for those who pay property tax and cannot vote, “Council serves everyone and we need to hear those voices to do the right thing.” Forrest “Butch” Critser feels the EITA is “a good thing as it gives you a unified strong voice heard by Council.” Joanne Shamp said, “In 11 years of service on the island, I respond to every communication and I don’t ask your category. The Comp Plan has specific discussions on every single aspect of this Town, to provide a level playing field.” Ber Stevenson stated, “It is an obvious concern that you cannot vote, but I listen to everyone; all we can do is listen and help each other.”

Asked about Downtown revitalization and if there is Comp Plan flexibility to make it a reality, Critser said, “We need to work within the Comp Plan with whoever to make Downtown vital again. We don’t have factories or oil wells but tourism.” Shamp said, “Our Comp Plan defines density and intensity and variances and deviations. I look forward to assisting this community so when you cross the bridge you love it.” Stevenson described the new plan as, “more acceptable and not a monstrosity but I am still guarded over variances like total units. I would like to see a percent of that money come back to the Town from that project.” Cereceda added, “I will do everything in my power to see Downtown redeveloped, as it is a black eye for our community and blight at the base of the bridge.” Butcher agreed, “There has to be a reason why in more than 10 years since Hurricane Charley we cannot accomplish this, but there is no time like the present.”

As to the viewpoint of some that the Town ‘over-governs,’ including permit fees, parking tickets, and code enforcement, Shamp replied, “We are top heavy in budget and spend way too much, with over $3 million on salaries. Government should not outspend what it brings in.” Stevenson said, “A lot of permits is simple stuff yet there has to be a better system. If you live in an historic cottage, you can apply for only two – one to demolish and one to replace.” Cereceda disagreed with Shamp: “We are not top heavy – we balance the budget with code enforcement because our local tax revenue is too low; I own a $300,000 home and pay $136 in Town taxes; 95% go elsewhere.” Butcher stated, “I don’t know how we run Code Enforcement to make money; we need to change the 50% Rule from five to one year because in retrospect we’ve already lost too many historic homes.” Critser agreed, “The 50% rule needs to be cut to one year so we can accumulate more dollars on a regular basis; 5 years is too long between renovations.”

During the ‘Lightning Round’ featuring short answers candidates were asked if they would ever halt the Town stormwater process? Cereceda pledged to continue, but Shamp, after calling it an unfair question for current council members, replied “yes and no.” Cereceda called this “a big difference between Joanne and I.” Butcher would complete the 30% stormwater design, as “you can’t judge problem areas just by the flooding of streets.” Critser agreed with completing the 30% design because “the Town needs that to go for grants.” Stevenson said the Town “needs more information for what we are doing now and in the future.”

Asked if they support removing the Palm Avenue public restroom rather than keeping or replacing it with Tourist Development Council funds, Cereceda supported full replacement, Shamp did not, Stevenson favored its removal, and Critser and Butcher wanted it to remain. All favored Town participation in the New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July firework displays, with Shamp adding, “in a limited fashion.”

The final scheduled public candidate forum before the March 7th election is “The Commotion By The Ocean” sponsored by the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, March 2, at The Fish Tale Marina Propeller Room at 7225 Estero Boulevard behind the Santini Plaza at 6:30 p.m. All are welcome to attend.

Gary Mooney