Clarifies Rental Confusion
The Fort Myers Beach Town Council held its Management & Planning Session virtually on Thursday morning, May 7. Council discussed prospective Capital Project finances and clarified confusion over whether Town Vacation Rentals can indeed begin to accept reservations and lodgers on May 15, among other matters.
Capital Projects Update
“Council member Jim Atterholt brought up this topic at a previous meeting,” explained Town Manager Roger Hernstadt. “We are just now beginning the Fiscal Year 2021 budget process, including receiving information from department heads on personnel changes and clarifications, equipment and operating expenses. We then typically provide to Council a preliminary budget based on the level of current services from the previous year, and then we discuss an ‘Add-On List,’ though that could theoretically be reductions, and you vote on those individually. Previously, we did this based on a 0.87 millage (tax rate) but Council last year increased that by 0.08 mills to begin to save money to fund renovations to what we call ‘The Big Three’ – Bayside Park, Times Square and the Bay Oaks Recreational Center. Our initial projection for those in total is $10 million, with the assumption we will get some financial help from the Tourist Development Council (TDC) for Times Square.”
Atterholt asked Hernstadt to “break down that $10 million.” “Off the back of an envelope,” Hernstadt replied, “Bayside Park is roughly $1.1 to $1.2 million, Times Square is $3.2 million and the remainder to Bay Oaks, though we are not sure of that number yet, as we remain in discussions with the Lee County School District to finalize the four corners of that property footprint. The amount of money from the millage increase is roughly $235,000 annually, so the question is how does Council want to pay for those projects. If you agree the Town will benefit from them generationally, then you can pay for them generationally through a 25 to 30-year low-interest tax-free loan at approximately 3%, just like you would a 30-year mortgage. In terms like that, assuming $10 million, that would be roughly $550,000-a-year. The previous Council authorized the Bayside Park design to 30% review and to move forward the Times Square design.”
“Is there any chance of TDC funding for Bayside Park?” asked Atterholt. “There is always that chance,” replied Hernstadt, “but the Lee County Attorney takes a very conservative view of that law.” Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros, who recently joined the TDC Board, noted, “The TDC is funded by the Bed Tax, and right now, due to the coronavirus, that is down now around 80%. That is huge and will take some time to build back up!”
Council member Bill Veach said, due to the coronavirus, “there may be government stimulus money available to help fund shovel-ready projects. If you do not have these ready, you may wait for financial help for a long time.” Atterholt asked Hernstadt if he can speculate how much the TDC could financially help the Times Square project. “Our thinking,” Hernstadt replied, “is it is the biggest beach access in Lee County, so the surface and lighting to get people to the beach could qualify.” Hosafros reminded, however, “The TDC does not currently consider Times Square a beach access.” Hernstadt added, “That is correct, and it will be a heck of a conversation when we have it! In all the places I’ve worked, the philosophy is to continue to invest in yourself, as why would other people want to invest in you if you do not believe in yourself, and those who do that in an economic downturn tend to be the first ones to bounce back.”
Atterholt noted that Lee County recently received $135 million from the federal government “Even they were surprised to get that! Will the Town receive any of that?” Mayor Ray Murphy responded, “That came up in our recent call with the local mayors and the Board of County Commissioners representative, so we will see how that comes out, but we hope so, in the spirit of cooperation and good will.” Veach reiterated, “The more shovel-ready we are, the better position to get funds we would not ordinarily get.” Hernstadt opined, “The thing that kills a project more than anything else is when you lose your momentum,” with Murphy adding, “I totally agree!”
Vacation Rental Dates
In a discussion on the State of Local Emergency: Vacation Rental Dates & Occupancy, Town Attorney John Herin, Jr., explained, “There continues to be uncertainly at the public level regarding what the town and state have done in regard to vacation rentals, as several State Executive Orders seem to contradict themselves. Executive Order 20-112 states that there is a ban on all statewide (vacation rental) reservations and stays with no end date in sight, and that remains in effect until Governor Ron DeSantis lifts that. The town in its Emergency Declaration #6 says Fort Myers Beach hotels and short term rentals can begin taking reservations and accepting tenants on Friday, May 15, but that is under the assumption the State lifts its restrictions by then.”
Council member Dan Allers asked for clarification that the State Executive Order is paramount over the Town’s Declaration #6, with Herin confirming, “The Governor’s Order supersedes anything else that anyone else has done.” Murphy asked what would happen to “anyone who jumps the gun on vacation rentals?” Hernstadt replied, “Code Enforcement would issue a Notice of Violation to show compliance. If they do not, we go from there, including the Lee County Sheriffs Office.”
In a press release on May 5, the town stated, “Hotels, motels, and timeshares may start accepting reservations on May 15, 2020, effective for occupancy dates as soon as May 15…One condition of opening to reservation and occupancy on May 15 is that deposits on reservations must be fully refundable and no change fees may be charged for reservation cancellations or modifications.” The release clarified that unless Governor DeSantis lifts his statewide ban on vacation rentals before May 15, they must remain closed until he lifts his ban.
Under a discussion on “The New World of 5G,” Hernstadt stated that a recent League of Cities article explored the impact of 5G infrastructure systems, including state versus local regulations, permitting, control and placement. Herin explained, “5G companies tend to place new connectivity poles into a community to enhance their service, to prevent dropped telephone calls and greater Internet connectivity, especially in our current situation where they is a significant demand increase.” He referred to the current Coral Gables legislation as “the gold standard” and suggested the town use that as a template.
Atterholt noted that he had experience with this when he was with the State of Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, noting, “These companies do not want us to complain about them, to get state legislation, so the major companies are happy to work with you over pole placement and things like that. Where a Town Ordinance may be helpful is over the smaller actors who may go rogue and not be as responsive.” “With all due respect to your experience,” replied Hosafros, “the article points out they are not being responsible, and I found a lack of respect from my service provider, so I am concerned about where they will place this stuff, as we may modify Times Square or Bayside Park and all of a sudden find these poles right in the middle of those places without being in our plans.”
“That is fair,” said Atterholt. “There are some bad actors out there but we do not want to create an adversarial relationship. We want these in Times Square for all the people there who use their phones, as 5G is a nice benefit, so we want to work in partnership with them as we create our ordinance.” Murphy said, “We can do both! I recommend the Town appoint Jim to be our liaison, to establish those relationships ahead of time.” “I am happy to do so,” responded Atterholt, “to protect our rights and enhance our opportunity to be a 5G community.” Veach suggested that Atterholt explore any chance to combine the 5G poles with potential future streetlight enhancements, with Atterholt considering that an excellent suggestion.
Under a discussion over the Town Council Policies & Procedures Manual, Hosafros suggested adding a section on the annual evaluation process for the Town Manager and Town Attorney. Council appointed her to oversee that matter. During Agenda Management, Murphy asked that Town Staff provide a monthly Financial Report, “in the spirit of transparency,” with Atterholt adding, “that would be very helpful.”
Council adjourned the Management & Planning Session after 92 minutes, though all Council members except for the Mayor remained for an optional workshop conducted by the Town Attorney to address a “Sunshine Law & Ethics Overview” that ran just under two hours more.
The next Town Council Meeting is Monday, May 20, with Council to determine if it will be virtual or in Council Chambers, depending on the Phase Two Florida Reopening Order from Governor DeSantis.