Council Sets Preliminary Budget Millage, Employees and Fireworks

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The Town of Fort Myers Beach Council, in a cordial discussion, basically set its 2017-18 Budget at its Management & Planning Session before a handful of people on Thursday morning, August 31. The meeting was so amicable that Council went a long way toward settling its every-six-months’ fireworks over fireworks for The Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.

Town Manager Roger Hernstadt and new Finance Director Robert Lange gave a professional and polished presentation, with Council nearly unanimous on most matters, as well as settling their few disagreements. The budget, however, is not official until Council has its first public budget hearing on Thursday, September 7, then the final hearing and vote on Thursday, September 21, each open to the public in Town Hall at 6:30 p.m.

Hernstadt recommended increasing the Town tax millage rate from 0.8 to 0.87 per $1,000 of property valuation, and estimated the tax collection rate at 96% since the Lee County Tax Collector applies up to a 4% discount to those who make early payments. 0.8 mill on a $300,000 Fort Myers Beach home equates to $240-per-year in taxes to the Town; 0.87 is $261 or a $21 annual increase, bringing in roughly $2.8 million. He recommended a 10% health insurance increase to cover Town employees, a 3% performance-based bonus to those employees who achieve measurable goals, a new Capital Improvements Program to fund the eventual replacement of all Town assets, and reallocating Sales Tax payments previously made to the State to mainly fund the new Finance Director position.

He proposed an overall reduction of Expenditures from FY 2016-17 by 8.6% or $586,195 including lowering payroll by $120,000, reducing legal fees by $25,000; and reclassified capital expenditures and insurance payments to accurately depict each departmental expense, with total projected Revenues of $14,788,025 and Expenditures at $14,227,320, leaving a pot of roughly $560,000 to fund potential Add-On programs.

The Town Manager stated it is vital that Council finally resolve the question of retaining Town employees versus outsourcing. “It appears cost factors and ancillary benefits indicate it is better to retain staff. That said, it is important to review our current salaries and benefits, as the biggest part of our governmental operation is people-dependent. I believe we can make surgical reductions and reduce payroll by $120,000 this year.”

Outsourcing is Out

“I spent a lot of time watching you gentlemen put your effort into this,” said Council member Joanne Shamp, “and you proved to me outsourcing will not improve the Town. I am very confident you will properly manage the employees, and are doing this well.” “I agree,” said Vice Mayor Tracey Gore. “There is some contracted labor you can bring in, but I like where you are going with this and appreciate it.” “I am good with it,” said Council member Bruce Butcher, with Mayor Dennis Boback adding, “I think we are going in the right direction.”

Hernstadt next addressed the Town’s vehicle fleet that Council has criticized as too large: “We basically bought most of these new, so we have a relatively young fleet. If we sell them just to sell them, we will suffer disastrous depreciation, so my approach is to carefully scrutinize future replacements. I understand when you drive past Town Hall on a weekend, it looks like a parking lot and I get that, and understand how the public may question you about this. My own car is 10 years old and I take care of it to last, and with proper care our vehicles should last that long before replacement.”

“I am cognizant this is an issue in the long-term capital plan that you will handle as well as you can,” said Shamp. “I like this, but that does not mean I like all the vehicles.” “I agree,” said the Vice Mayor again: “It is good for the community that your change in approach took many of them off the beach. Going forward, I am happy with what you are doing.” “Thank you for the information,” added Council member Anita Cereceda, “and I will be happy to put this to rest!” “I still believe we have way too many,” countered Mayor Boback, “but selling them at a loss is counterproductive, so let them run their useful life, then properly dispose of them.”

Next Hernstadt addressed the Town’s lack of a strong financial reserve and Capital Improvements Plan. “Government associations recommend a reserve of 19% in operating purposes, with a secondary recommendation in hurricane areas to increase that to 25%. Former Interim Town Manager Jim Steele did a lot of great work in teeing this up, to use a golf term as Jim is a golfer, so I don’t want to forget his effort.”

Hernstadt reported the Town is hitting its goals in the Stormwater Fund, Beachwater Utility and Debt Service areas. “Citizens worry about the financial stability of the Town,” said Shamp. “Now people can have confidence it is financially secure and can keep going forward as the wonderful Town that it is.”

Council then considered the potential budgetary Add-Ons, approving the 3% staff bonus provision; a change in benefits for new and existing employees; hiring a lobbyist to author grants; provide funding for Council training, fee waivers, special Sheriff services, anchorage advertising and record management software; and televising Magistrate Hearings, while denying requests for a Times Square information camera, a group to play bridge, and funds for the Fort Myers Beach Art Association.

Fireworks Funds

Perhaps the topic of most interest was the annual fireworks displays on The Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, with $26,000 listed for each. “Both are important to the community,” said Shamp. “I am concerned and uncomfortable about the interaction between the private sector and Council to try to figure out who pays for what, so the Town should fund The Fourth but not New Year’s Eve. That means private fundraisers only have to raise money for one event a year.”

Cereceda felt the Town should “leave the numbers as they are, to allow the Town Manager to sit down with everyone and come up with a solution.” Gore supported Shamp’s suggestion: “The Fourth falls during the dead of summer, so it helps businesses, and residents love it. The Town can still do the beachball drop and cupcakes on New Year’s Eve, but someone else must pay for fireworks, as it is not fair to place this burden on the taxpayers.”

Mayor Boback favored financial support for The Fourth, “but cut the $26,000 in half and let the community do the rest.” “I personally love New Year’s Eve fireworks,” countered Butcher. “I find it fun and my family likes it, so let’s get it done!” Cereceda said, “It is not just about fireworks but the event. If we do not have fireworks on New Year’s Eve, the beach will still attract a huge crowd. These holidays will occur, with or without fireworks.” Shamp stated, “Four of us are fine with it right now,” with the Town Manager stating he will speak to the Fireworks Committee prior to the final budget decision.

 

Gary Mooney