Give & Take
In its final meeting before taking the summer off, The Estero Island Taxpayers Association (EITA) hosted Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dennis Boback in a spirited question & answer session on Tuesday evening, May 9, before roughly 25 residents.
Before taking the initial query, Mayor Boback explained that he is “speaking simply for myself, and not Town Council or Lee County. If I do not have the answer, I will get it for you.”
EITA Executive Director Beverley Milligan began by asking, “What does it mean to you to be mayor, and do you have a job description?” He replied, “I have one vote, just like the other four council members, so I have no more power or influence then they, though it is an honor to be elected mayor by the other council members, but I am more of a figurehead, for ribbon-cuttings and things like. As for my job description, I represent all the businesses and residents of the beach.”
Beverley pointed out another important function: “You run the meetings! There are a lot of strong and opposing opinions on Council; how do you manage that?” “Sure is,” agreed Boback, “but Council evolved since the election last March, and there is less contention today. My philosophy is I can probably make the meetings a little shorter by cutting off some conversation, but I feel our residents voted for their councilperson, and they have the right to understand why a councilperson votes the way they vote – that is the democratic way. For whatever reason, the new Council seems to function very well.” “And that makes your job easier,” added Beverley, with Boback adding with a hearty laugh, “definitely!”
A question about code compliance led to a discussion about parking, and that gave way to a long, spirited exchange between Boback and Jack Mayher, developer of the proposed Bay Harbor Marina Village on San Carlos Island. Mayher wondered why the Town of Fort Myers Beach sent an employee to the Lee Board of County Commissioners to speak against his plan, specifically its 500-car parking garage.
“Our concern is traffic,” explained the Boback, “If Lee County approves your plan along with the Ebbtide development, that will add roughly 2,000 more cars and an hour or two to traffic trying to reach Fort Myers Beach every day.” When Mayher countered that the garage will keep people from the island. “They still have to drive that far down San Carlos Boulevard,” responded Boback. “Lee County needs to take into account the traffic situation on San Carlos, as that directly affects Fort Myers Beach, and that is our concern. A parking garage at the bottom of the bridge is not the solution; you know how many times I see cars now turn around and drive away. We will lose people because they will not sit in line that long; I am not personally in favor of parking garages.”
Something Down There Needs to Be Done
The topic shifted to Downtown and the proposed redevelopment plan by TPI Hospitality, Inc., with Boback saying, “Nobody disagrees, I don’t think on Town Council or anywhere, that something down there needs to be done. The question is, what?” Audience members asked him about the Lee County-owned Seafarer’s Mall property, that is now a staging area for the reFRESH Estero Boulevard projects, and is shown as an empty lot in the latest TPI plan. They encouraged him and all other councilmembers to meet in one-on-one sessions with Lee County Commissioners to make progress in this matter.
Boback countered that “I personally delivered that letter to Commissioner Larry Kiker, on behalf of Town Council, to work with TPI to figure out something on Seafarers, and we got nothing out of it. I can’t control what Lee County thinks and I can’t speak for them here. We asked them a couple of times if we can buy that land and they turned us down. They should clear out of there before the end of the upcoming Segment 2 for Estero Boulevard construction, so that will not be a staging area anymore, but what they do with it after that we don’t know. You in the audience can speak to the County Commissioners, too – remember, a squeaky wheel gets the grease and the more someone hollers, the better, as I don’t know what more Council can do.”
Milligan commented that it seems like everyone is ready for a Downtown project. “No question about that,” Boback replied. “But you have to go through the process, starting with Town staff and probably a couple of consultants. Then it goes on to the Local Planning Agency (LPA) with two hearings, with the public giving their input. Following that, it goes to Council and two more open meetings, so the public will see everything, with nothing going on behind closed doors.”
When asked if variances are possible for the TPI plan, Boback said, “That is why we have variances built into the system. I am not that strict and will listen to anything, as that is part of the process. You cannot have everything in black-and-white, so our system has variances to weigh these things out. You have to look at the whole pie and not just a little piece. Downtown is a big hurdle, and I hope it will happen, but it will probably not happen much quicker than in a year.”
When asked about stormwater, the Boback said the Town was able to lower the initial estimate “from $33 million down to $20 million, and perhaps we can drop that to the $14 million range, as we have yet to receive a single grant yet. Your monthly stormwater fee is $19, and that was to increase to $33, but now that is not going up and in fact will start to drop as the project progresses, especially with joint outfalls. The engineers have a joint outfall on Donora Boulevard, on which I live, and I can tell you Donora never floods, nor do we add water to any other flooded area of the island, so why run a pipe all the way down that long street, and save a ton of money instead.”
An audience member stated that the Town hired professionals to make these determinations, and asked why the Mayor wouldn’t listen to their expertise. “You should,” he replied! “That is what we are doing. I would be happy if they can explain to me why that is necessary on Donora, and they haven’t been able to do that, and I do not blindly listen to them. All this will be addressed as we move down the island.”
Asked why he sought a Council seat, the Boback said, “I basically ran because the Town was going in the wrong direction. It was damned near broke and spending money like a drunken sailor, and that is no disrespect to drunken sailors! There were $3.2 million in unpaid stormwater invoices, with no funding source or plan, so I thought it was time to step up and help us get out of that mess. Let me say that Interim Town Manager Jim Steele did a tremendous job! In 3 to 5 years, our monetary reserve will be where it needs to be, and that is why I ran. In two more years, when my term ends, I probably won’t run again, but if we still have work to do, I may!”
Let The Voters Decide
When asked if he would support a millage rate increase, he firmly responded: “No! Over 50% of our budget supports the Mound House, Newton Park, the Bay Oaks Recreation Center, its pool and the anchorage. I am not advocating or even saying we should close any of those as they are all community assets – no question about that – but the problem becomes economics: how much can we afford to subsidize these, as those five go up every year. If you want to increase taxes, let’s go to a referendum and let the voters decide. If they chose to increase taxes, I am good with that. There is the perception the Town is broke but we are not; we do, however, stay within our budget, so if it not in our budget, we are not spending it.”
The final question to Boback regarded whether the Town would assist with funding for the 4th of July Fireworks display. “People need to remember I helped start that show,” said Boback, “to bring business to that end of the beach in July when it is dead, and this is the time when the locals can come out to play. Would I like to see them? Sure! Now that Estero Boulevard construction is moving down the road, it ought to be easier, and bigger and better than last year, with a better parade during the day.”
The EITA will meet again on Tuesday, August 8, with the topic being, “Burning Issues at the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department.”