County Drops Mil Rate at Budget Hearing: Plans $13.2 Million in Future Water Projects

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Only one person spoke during public comment at Lee County’s first public hearing on their budget Tuesday night, where the Board of Lee County Commissioners (BoCC) quickly adopted a tentative budget that included a 50-cent reduction per $1,000 of assessed value – the first such reduction of the millage rate in 10 years.

After Commission Chairman Frank Mann opened the hearing, County Manager Roger Desjarlais began by congratulating the Board.

“Three years ago we started with a huge deficit, which was eliminated in the first year, and we’ve had 9 or 10 work sessions either about this budget or about policies affecting it,” he said. “You asked us to come up with new funding sources, and this year we came up with the Growth Increment Funding (GIF) which will provide about $60 million for new road projects while simultaneously lowering the mil rate – should this be adopted – for the first time in a decade.”

GIF revenue is created by identifying every real estate transaction that increases the taxable value and allocating the difference to the road infrastructure fund for the first taxable year.

During public comment, the lone speaker congratulated the board on a job well done. Mann thanked him then questioned why more people did not show up to ask about social services. During last month’s workshops, several residents spoke and wrote emails encouraging the BoCC to give more money to social service programs rather than cut the tax rate.  Some advocated for the creation of Children’s Service Council for Lee County. That agency would have the power to levy a tax of up to one-half cent per thousand dollars valuation to provide money for human service programs.

“I’m a little surprised,” Mann said. “I thought this would be an opportunity for them to start making their point.”

However, Commissioners Cecil Pendergrass, Brian Hamman and Larry Kiker said that the time for that would have been much earlier in the budget cycle.

Assistant County Manager and Chief Financial Officer Pete Winton then gave his report – saying that the two biggest topics of conversation during the budget workshops were transportation and water quality.

“We balanced the budget – without using reserves – in 2013-2014, in 2015, we continued those policies, and in 2016 we implemented the GIF – which gave us an additional $90 million in investments that this year we applied to water quality and transportation projects,” he said. “The budget being presented to you tonight is what was presented at final work session on August 16 with the addition of the following: design of the Hickory Boulevard bridges (Little Carlos, New Pass and Big Hickory) in Fiscal Year 20/21 for $3.8 million with construction of the bridges ($33.8 million) by 23/24. This will allow for potential acceleration of the Estero Boulevard reconstruction project.”

Winton added that replacement of the Big Carlos Pass Bridge has been scheduled for the fiscal year 2020/2021.

The County’s total budget for the coming fiscal year is $2,064,666,305, with reserves of $668,680,757. The countywide millage rate is 4.0506, a 3.37% increase from the rollback rate – but down from last year’s mil rate of 4.1506. Lee County Library’s mil rate is .5956 – a 6.05% increase from the rollback rate, and the rate for unincorporated Lee County MSTU is .8398, a 6.33% increase from the rollback rate.

“As far as our General Fund Reserves, we are at 20% of the target with $9 million projected excess reserves, and the $90 million in additional investment dollars will be spent on water quality and transportation/infrastructure projects, with no additional debt incurred by the county,” Winton said. “We also have $487.8 million in projects in our 5-year Capital Improvements Plan (CIP).”

Winton outlined the $13.2 million in water quality projects planned in that 5-year CIP:

$2 million set aside annually for the Caloosahatchee River Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Reduction; $3 million for Nalle Grade Stormwater Park, construction scheduled for FY 17/18; $1.8 million for Hendry Creek improvements, scheduled for FY 20/21; $3 million for Deep Lagoon Hydrologic Restoration, FY 18/19; $400,000 for North Fort Myers Water Surface Improvements, FY 16/17; $350,000 for Sunniland Drainage and $600,000 for the Lakes Park Littoral Zone.

“We also have additional investments in law enforcement and EMS over the last 3 years, and we’ve reduced debt,” he concluded. “We have balanced the budget for the last four years without using reserves.”

Mann thanked staff and gave credit to Kiker, saying that most of this happened under his chairmanship. The Board then unanimously adopted the tentative budget and millage rate.

The final public hearing on Lee County’s budget for the coming fiscal year will be held on Tuesday, September 20, 2016 at 5:05pm at the Old Lee County Courthouse in downtown Fort Myers.

 

Keri Hendry Weeg