Council Sets TRIM Tax Rate

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Terms, Elections to March 2020 Ballot

The Fort Myers Beach Town Council held its final meeting for the next two months before roughly 25 residents on Monday morning, June 3. It discussed moving Town elections from March to November, while extending Council member terms from 3 to 4 years. Later, Council authorized the possibility of increasing the Town’s Fiscal Year 2020 Millage from 0.87 to 0.95 to explore funding projects like revitalizing Times Square or Bayfront Park as well as a new Bay Oaks Recreational Center entryway, but can still drop that during its September Budget Meetings.

Town Elections & Council Terms

Under “Public Hearings: 1st Reading of an Ordinance for Calling for Elections to Amend the Town Charter,” Council debated shifting Town elections from March to November to coincide with State & Federal dates, and to change Town Council Member terms from three to four years, so the Town will be on November ballots in even numbered years, to reduce the costs by roughly $15,000 each cycle. Council can technically do the former on its own via a Resolution but voters must approve the latter by Referendum.

Council member Rexann Hosafros said she would like Fort Myers Beach voters to decide both these matters. Council member Joanne Shamp said she was not in favor of either, noting that beach voters on several occasions defeated extending Council terms from three to four years, the last time in 2016 by roughly two-thirds of the vote. Vice Mayor Ray Murphy stated, “My big problem with our current concept is it seem like every time we turn around, there is another Town election; 2 out of every 3 years is crazy and too much, in my opinion.” “I agree with Ray,” said Council member Bruce Butcher, who added that “November is a good time for elections.”

Mayor Anita Cereceda opened Public Comment, where the Town’s two previous Mayors spoke. Tracey Gore said voters soundly easily defeated a similar proposal in March 2016, and the last time the Town changed it on its own in 2001 “that resulted in a lawsuit and a ‘Hot Mess,’ when the judge overturned the Town. The best way is to put it on the ballot and let the people decide.” Dennis Boback stated if Council implements the change on its own, the current members would have 8 months added to their terms: “You were elected to Support, Protect, & Defend the Town Charter, and the Charter says, ‘three years,’ not 3 year, 8 month terms!”

“I still feel that March is the better time for elections,” said Shamp. “Many property owners are not here August through October, the money the Town pays for those elections is not that much, and with Mail-In ballots, traffic is not an issue.” Cereceda countered, “In my opinion, elections should be in November. When beach institutions hold Candidate Forums for March elections, it is the same 25 people who show up.” “I agree,” said Murphy. “I support changing the election date to November but let voters decide the length of Council terms.”

Butcher proposed that Council place the two questions on the March 2020 ballot as one combined initiative: move elections to November, with Council members serving 4-year terms. Should that pass, the three Council members elected that day would serve 4 year, 8 month terms, to November 2024, with terms of current Council members Hosafros and Murphy extended 8 months, to November 2022. Council then unanimously placed this initiative on the March 2020 ballot.

FY2020 Tax Rate

In a discussion about next year’s town tax rate, Town Manager Roger Hernstadt presented a suggested 0.87 mills per $1,000 of assessed property values budget for Fiscal Year 2020, to produce an estimated $2.9 million, saying this is sufficient for the next year to provide “the current level of service.” This does not include any reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency from Hurricane Irma that may total as much as $400,000 with the first $130,000 to the Town in the foreseeable future. In addition to that, the Town has a 25% Hurricane Risk Fund that is more than the recommended 19% for a community like Fort Myers Beach. He reminded Council that in setting the Tentative Millage or TRIM rate (Truth-in-Millage) “you can always go back down, but you can’t go back up again.”

Hosafros said she was “hesitant to block ourselves in, though I do not want to raise taxes.” “I agree,” said Shamp. “What if we find a plan that excites the community for Bay Oaks, but we can’t do it because we locked ourselves in?” Murphy stated that “I agree as well; so what is that number?” Butcher suggested Council focus on an actual dollar figure, then staff can deduce the equivalent millage. Further discussion led Council to agree on an additional $250,000; after a break, staff stated that every additional 0.01-mill netted roughly $33,000 so a tentative rate of 0.95 would garner approximately $250,000 more. Staff can investigate project costs for items in the Strategic Plan for the next year with Council on break, for them to make their final determination in September.

“This won’t tie our hands,” said Murphy, “and we can always go down.” “It is important for people to remember right now this is not a tax increase,” added Cereceda about the tentative rate. Hosafros said “I will be brave and make the motion; you can put it in the local press that I made the motion for 0.95 mills!” “I am comfortable with this,” Shamp said. “Now people can tell us for the next few months want they want from us.” Cereceda concluded that “we do not adopt the actual millage rate until fall; this simply allows us to have budget discussions that are outside the box until then.” Council then unanimously proved the 0.95 TRIM tax rate that will appear on property owners TRIM notices mailed in August.

And The Rest

In other items, Council approved a Proclamation declaring June “Immigrant Heritage Month” by a 3 to 2 vote, with Butcher against because he sees no reason for the Town to become involved in such a national “Hot Button” topic, and Shamp against because, while it advocates “Legal Immigration,” its language does not do so more consistently. Council then unanimously approved $27,000 to Garden State Fireworks for The Fourth of July Fireworks.

Under “Public Hearings,” Council unanimously forwarded the “First Reading of the Times Square Street Performer Ordinance” to its 2nd Reading on Monday, August 5, after determining that juggling was allowable, but the selling of merchandise was not, with the exception of the three current Times Square performers who sell handmade sculptures, hats, and surfboards who this will “grandfather” in. Under “Adjustment to the Liki Tiki BBQ Commercial Planned Development” at 1821 Estero Boulevard to allow outdoor music, Council determined the application paperwork contained too many flaws and unanimously rejected the proposal to allow the owner to start over.

Under “Administrative Agenda,” Council unanimously approved the “Resolution to Update the Town’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan,” with the Town Manager to firm up the method for those who can volunteer during a crisis to help residents who need assistance. Council unanimously approved donating “Surplus Radios” to the Bonita Springs Fire Control & Rescue District after Shamp related that the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District does not need them; and unanimously authorized $189,623 in Tourist Development Council funds to Fowler Construction for the “Newton Beach Park Restroom Renovation.”

Council unanimously approved $21,700 to Coastal Engineering Consultants to provide a conceptual design for the possible expansion of the Town Mooring Field; unanimously approved the “Special Event Permit for the 33rd Annual American Sand Sculpting Championships” while denying their request to waive the $1,290 permit fee, Town Noise Ordinance, and Open Container regulation outside the dedicated fenced-in area; and unanimously approved replacing the sidewalk between the Lani Kai Island Resort and Crescent Beach Family Park in August & September.

Under “Council Member Items,” Hosafros asked Hernstadt if the Town no longer investigates turtle lighting infractions. He said that to the best of his knowledge, the Town does, though it cancelled one evening due to a scheduling conflict, with the Town policy to work with residents and businesses with a warning first, to find a solution before issuing violations. He said it is easy now for potential violators to comply since they can purchase turtle-friendly lights at cost directly from Town Hall.

Hosafros said she would like to examine removing from the Zoning Regulations the phrase “Worship Center” from Codes governing Fort Myers Beach churches, stating that the accompanying phrase, “Religious Activities,” covers all basic services. “The way it is now, every island church is probably in violation of zoning, so this is a problem. We do not want church members protesting Council wearing t-shirts that say, ‘Unfair to Christians!’” Council will discuss this during its Thursday, June 6, “Management & Planning Session.”

Council’s next meeting is Monday, August 5, with Mayor Cereceda on an excused absence. Council moved the August Management & Planning Session to Thursday, August 15, then adjourned at 1:04 p.m.

 

By Gary Mooney
gary@fortmyersbeach.news