Split Council Approves 2017-18 Budget

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Fireworks Still Torments Council

For the umpteenth time, fireworks over community fireworks plagued the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council, leading to a divided vote to approve the 2017-18 Budget at its Thursday, September 21, meeting at 6:30 p.m. In addition to fireworks, Council debated an apparently mistaken annual payment to the State of Florida, leading them to instruct Town Attorneys to obtain a legal ruling.

Prior to their budgetary discussion, Council commended the Fort Myers Beach community for its Hurricane Irma response, particularly how citizens assisted one-another in the emergency. Council member Joanne Shamp first, then Vice Mayor Tracey Gore spoke with tears of appreciation in their voices, before Council Member Anita Cereceda mentioned several people that had helped the community, in particular Joe Orlandini, “or as he is often referred to around Town Hall, ‘The Devil Incarnate!’” “I watched this Town staff do an extraordinary job in getting everything done, then cleanup afterwards,” said Mayor Dennis Boback. “We all owe you a debt of gratitude.”

Council began its budgetary session by unanimously increasing the Town’s 2017-18 Ad Valorem Tax to 0.87-mill, up from the current 0.8-mill. This means for each $1,000 valuation of your home, you pay the Town 87 cents; on a $300,000 house, this is an increase from $240 to $261-per-year. Following this, Cereceda, the first Town Mayor, reminded all that “the initial incorporation rate was 1.0604 mills, significantly higher than today, and I still believe our millage rate should be higher.”

Bring The Family

Under the 2017-18 Operating Budget, “I am going to touch on parking,’ said Cereceda, in reference to the suggestion to increase Fort Myers Beach public parking from $2 to $3-per-hour beginning Sunday, October 1. “I did not like it the first time, and still don’t. Fort Myers Beach has always been the place to bring the family, because you don’t need to pay $6 like for Sanibel, but now people will pay $6 in parking for dinner, then maybe another $3 to take a walk on the beach or pier. We are the inclusive island that historically welcomes people, so this irritates me to no end!”

Cereceda discussed a second parking issue, this one referring to the Town’s apparent discovery it paid roughly $70,000 annually to the Florida Department of Taxation for its parking meters. “I just find it incredible that in 21 years, no Town Manager or Finance Director discovered this, so I am uncomfortable. Our new Finance Director, Robert Lange, has a wealth of experience, but this makes me uneasy that a lot of smart people over the years would miss this, so the Town should have some assurance. Why wouldn’t auditors over the years say, ‘why are you paying this?’”

Lange presented Council a June 27, 2017, email from the Florida Department of Taxation, verifying his position. “We are just starting to look at this,” said Town Attorney Jack Peterson. “The file is already pretty full! Other states exempt street parking meters as traffic management, but that is not as articulate in Florida.”

“The $3-an-hour parking concerns me,” offered Shamp. “However, it is a luxury to bring an automobile to a barrier island, so that is the cost of doing business; I support the $3.”

Mad as Hell

Shamp then segued into fireworks for The Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve that is also the Town’s birthday, calling it “the annual gnashing of teeth over fireworks. These cost $55,000 to $60,000 each time, with the way it is structured that the Town pays half, and some mystery person or community business or the Chamber or Tooth Fairy comes up with the other half, as blowing up $120,000 is a lot! I personally feel the Town should do one event, rather than to continuing to have this conversation. My preference is The Fourth, as the Town can participate on New Year’s Eve with the ball drop and cupcakes, and leave it to other entities to step forward to do a special event, like fireworks or a laser show.”

“I support exactly what you said,” agreed Gore. “There is the sheriff and fire department and staff time and permitting; there is so much involved in fireworks.” “This hurts me as much as everyone else,” explained Shamp, “because my family comes in from out-of-state for New Year’s Eve.” Boback offered to fund one firework display “at $26,000 and call it a day,” with Gore countering that “you cannot do fireworks for that.” “I am with you and Joanne,” said Council member Bruce Butcher to Gore. “I really like New Year’s Eve, but let’s fund The Fourth and if someone else steps up for New Year’s Eve, then great.”

“These are holidays, whether you blow up fireworks or not,” explained Cereceda, “so you are still going to have a very large police bill, so the only savings will be the fireworks. Clearly I will lose this vote, but we are raising millage and raising parking but cutting an event. This is a hideous decision, and I will not support the budget because of it.” “On principle?” asked Boback. “Not principle,” replied Cereceda, “but because this makes me mad as hell!”

Gore made a motion to have the Town pay entirely for The Fourth of July Fireworks not to exceed $72,000; and participate on New Year’s Eve with the traditional cupcakes and ball drop. “There will still be a New Year’s Eve security cost,” cautioned Cereceda. “Maybe not,” said Boback, “because without fireworks the sheriff may not pass on those charges.” “My final comment,” said Cereceda, “is no one has any idea of the economic impact of Hurricane Irma, but people know already it is substantial, so cutting an event like this that is so important is so short-sighted.”

At Least Now They Know

Council then approved the motion 3 to 2, with Cereceda and Boback against; with his vote surprising Council and drawing an audience gasp. “I am not spending $72,000 for fireworks,” he explained. “Get a corporate sponsor!” “People work hard to put on these shows,” concluded the Gore. “At least now they know.”

Council then approved the 2017-18 Final Operating Budget 4 to 1, with Cereceda Against. The balanced budget has Revenues and Expenditures at $16,816,765 with $7,711,145 from the General Fund; $1,611,760 in Special Revenue; $6,788,835 in Enterprise Funds; and $705,025 in Capital Projects. The Town estimates Ad Valorem Tax at $2,776,845 or an increase over 2016-2017’s $2,497,171.

Under the Administrative Agenda, Council after lengthy debate unanimously approved a Special Exemption for Fish-Tale Marina Restaurant to expand its outdoor seating area. It provided unanimous approval for Fun Rentals to lease Town Right-Of-Way for parking; a Technical Support Services Agreement with Evolvtec; and Special Events Permits for the 8th annual Paint The Beach Plein Air Art Festival from November 6 to 12; the 12th annual Pirate Fest from October 6 to 8; a new Farmer’s Market at 441 Old San Carlos Boulevard on Tuesdays from November 7 to April 4 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and the 31st annual American Sand Sculpting Championships from November 17 to 26; before adjourning at 10:10 p.m.

Gary Mooney

 

Caption:  Town Principal Planner Matt Noble addresses Council on the Fish-Tale Marina Restaurant Special Exemption.