Six special guests highlighted the Lee Republican Women Federated monthly luncheon on Monday, September 9, at Pinchers at The Marina at Edison Ford in Fort Myers. Joining Mayor Anita Cereceda of Fort Myers Beach were Peter Simmons of the City of Bonita Springs; Joe Coviello of the City of Cape Coral; Bill Ribble of the City of Estero; Randy Henderson of the City of Fort Myers; and Kevin Ruane of the City of Sanibel. Moderating was Amira Fox, the State Attorney for the 20th Judicial Circuit of Florida that covers Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry & Lee Counties.
“As we enjoyed lunch,” Ms. Fox began, “I was struck by how well the six mayors all get along, and that is a big benefit to Lee County, and what benefits Lee County benefits all of us!” She then asked each Mayor to give a brief snapshot of their community.
Mayor Coviello stated, “Cape Coral will reduce our millage to the rollback rate, as we had a nice 8% property value increase, meaning our residents will pay the same in taxes as last year, without sacrificing any public services. Our law enforcement officers, in fact, received a substantial pay increase, to maintain the safety record of the largest city in Southwest Florida as one of the safest in the state! We are installing new sidewalks and bus stops to keep our children safe, are doing $6.5 million in road paving, and spending $200,000 for 400 new streetlights to ensure our quality of life remains second to none.”
In discussing Bonita Springs, Mayor Simmons said, “We are holding our millage rate the same, as it is generating an extra $800,000. Water quality is always a concern, but fortunately the stars and moon and planets and earth are all in full alignment, so this is not an issue this year so far. President Donald Trump supports the Everglades and so does Governor Ron DeSantis and over 400 Florida Mayors, so we are all literally rowing in the same direction, and even working across the aisle, to finally get things done!”
Mayor Randy Henderson of Fort Myers gave the most moving presentation: “I flew to the Bahamas yesterday for a relief effort, and it was the most emotional moment of my 19 years in public service. Once you see that human suffering, eyeball to eyeball, you quickly realize all those people have no place to go, and their patience is wearing thin, as it is hot and they are concerned for their families and their homes are obliterated, and all they really want is get on that airplane with you and leave the island, but that was the one thing we could not do for them, and that was heartbreaking. We could not relieve their suffering and that is where we need to get as soon as humanly possible.”
Cereceda explained that she is not just the Fort Myers Beach Mayor now but was the Town’s original Mayor from 1995! “For my community, it is about Downtown expansion and redevelopment, and we are waiting on a Judge’s decision about when we can proceed with the Margaritaville Resort, as there has never been a project in the Town’s history that is more important. We discussed and debated it until Council unanimously approved it twice, but then one citizen halted it all with two lawsuits, one of which she since dropped. This dearly cost the developer millions of dollars and the Town millions more, so we hope the Judge resolves the remaining one soon so Fort Myers Beach can put on a new face. Many remember Fort Myers Beach as a sleepy little fishing village, with just a car or two crossing an old wooden bridge, and want to return to those days, but they forget that means no air conditioning and thick swarms of mosquitos! The nature of our Town is changing, with the start of a rebranding process, to embrace the next chapter of our lives, so we invite you to visit and see our changes!”
Mayor Ribble reminded, “Estero is just five years old! Flooding was a big issue for us, especially along Estero Parkway, but we mostly eliminated that this year. In our community, development occurs rapidly, so we had a number of accidents, particularly with school buses, and everyone reacted fast and did a great job in fixing this crucial issue, so if you see a school bus loading or unloading, please stop and stay vigilant.”
“Sanibel will rollback our taxes tonight,” explained Mayor Kevin Ruane. “This means that over the past decade, we will have reduced our taxes 25% while lowering our debt 80%! Every day we live with balancing progress and conservation, and that is huge for a small barrier island, but most of our residents and tourists are open to this. We are one of the area’s most popular places to visit, going from roughly 6,000 people in the offseason to over 40,000 in-season, so we work with Lee County and utilize technology enhancements to accomplish this, so come early, stay late or – better yet – stay over!”
Ms. Fox asked each Mayor to define their community’s biggest challenge, though she prompted Mayor Henderson that for Fort Myers, it was violent crime and how they successfully addressed it. “It all started over a decade ago with the Great Recession, when we lost the top third of our Police Department to early retirements and other positions. The bad guys knew this and violent crime spiked. The good news today is that is a thing of the past, with unprecedented cooperation from the Federal Government all the way down to dog catcher, and certainly Amira’s office! We are way stronger today, with 50 more police officers and another 25 coming soon.”
Mayor Simmons stated, “In Bonita Springs, our biggest challenge is water. This is an exciting time for us, particularly along Old US41. We recently opened a new Downtown library, and that area is now on an upswing, where before we had prostitution and drugs, we now have family events in public parks!”
“Cape Coral is pushing 200,000 people,” said Mayor Coviello, “so our biggest challenge is expansion. We work to eliminate septic tanks, minimize fertilizer and do things in a more natural way, as water quality is huge! All the Mayors here work together in the Southwest Florida Coalition of Mayors and I really believe this united front helped to get Governor DeSantis to clear out the former South Florida Water Management District Board with a new group that places our residents first. Because of our growth, it is not just water quality but quantity, so we are working with Fort Myers on water reclamation.”
Mayor Cereceda said, “For Fort Myers Beach, it is our management of resources. We are everyone’s playground, as we go from 6,000 people in the offseason to over 60,000 by Spring Break, so our biggest challenge is impact and how we do more with less. A lot of you visit Fort Myers Beach on weekends, but do you take your trash home with you? Of course not, so it is up to our 6,000 residents to pay that bill for up to 60,000 people! Another major element is the reFRESH Estero Boulevard Projects, but it is not just a new roadway, but stormwater and potable water, so it is a multilevel process between the Town and Lee County that started out as a 10-year project, but that would have killed our Town, so now it is down to six years and we are about halfway done. When it is complete, it will be wonderful!”
Mayor Ribble stated, “Septic and sewers are constants, with meetings all the time to meet these challenges, as these are not always popular. Another challenge is in updating Estero Parkway, with Lee County contributing $9 million for paving, a shared bikeway and new landscaping. Yet another is Corkscrew Road, as there will be 6,000 new homes in that area.”
“On Sanibel, it is water quality and quantity,” explained Mayor Ruane. “Fertilizer, septic tanks, reclaimed water and removing nitrogen and phosphorus. There are 67 water quality projects in the pipeline for Florida and we need them all, so it is a privilege to work with all these Mayors to come together as one, with more than 400 others through the Florida League of Cities, of which I am the new President, along with leaders in Tallahassee and President Trump, to get funds in place to make them happen. When you live on an island, you quickly appreciate that water is everything.”
Ms. Fox ended by asking each Mayor to use one word to describe their community’s biggest need and she began by saying: “Money!” Henderson, Ribble, Ruane and Simmons followed in agreement, while Coviello stated, “Compassion.” Only Cereceda slightly broke the guideline by saying, “Can I use a hyphenated word – Home-Rule!”
By Gary Mooney