Go Fund Me!
In just a few weeks, children all over the world will climb into Santa’s lap and give The Jolly Old Elf their “Wish List” of gifts for the upcoming Christmas season. This was very much the same sensation when roughly 60 political and private enterprise entities presented their priority “Wish Lists” to the Lee County Legislative Delegation at Florida SouthWestern State College on Wednesday, October 18th.
The meeting began with outgoing Chair, State Representative Matt Caldwell, calling to order the Florida Legislative Delegation of State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto, Representative Dane Eagle, Representative Heather Fitzenhagen, Senator Kathleen Passidomo, and Representative Ray Rodrigues. As Caldwell is in his final year of legislative service due to term limits, the delegation unanimously elected Representative Eagle its new Chair.
Among the roughly 60 groups explaining their requests was the Town of Fort Myers Beach, represented by Vice Mayor Tracey Gore and Town Manager Roger Hernstadt. “You have our letter that substantially outlines our priorities,” said Hernstadt, “and they are short-and-sweet, with just two.”
He asked the Legislative Delegation to “support the efforts of the Florida League of Cities to empower the decision-making of local municipalities, as this is a critical issue, as our governments are the closest to representing the needs of our citizens. Fort Myers Beach is a small town with only 7,000 property taxpayers, but in season we have a 7-fold increase to enjoy our beaches. This places, however, a huge burden on our infrastructure, so there needs to be a fair way to recover our costs, so that burden does not fall to only our local taxpayers, through the implementation of either a bed tax or local option infrastructure surtax not to exceed one cent, to produce an economic engine to maintain our popular tourism destination.”
Hernstadt stated the Town’s second request pertains to the ongoing work to upgrade its nearshore water quality project for water and stormwater. “Fort Myers Beach recognizes the problem of providing adequate flood protection, to meet the 10-year, 72-hour storm event level, and our taxpayers increased their fee rates for water and stormwater, but the $26 million borrowed by the Town for its 3,198 utility ratepayers is still not adequate. To date, the Town has yet to approach Tallahassee for assistance, but we will in 2018, and we hope with your help to find relief to our island taxpayers here who are making this huge contribution to our local economy.”
While neither the Vice Mayor nor Town Manager addressed it, the Town in its presentation letter informed the group it will soon hire a lobbyist who specializes in State affairs to assist in attaining funds.
Burnin’ Down The House
While the majority of the daylong meeting focused on individual government or organizational requests, the Legislative Delegation began the session by debating a possible nonbinding straw vote for November 2018 to see if Lee County voters would prefer one merged Countywide Fire District, as opposed to the current situation of 17 independent community Fire Districts such as the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District.
Representative Caldwell is the primary advocate. “We addressed this last year, and agreed to readdress it,” he explained. “This is a perennial issue that comes up time and again, so the nonbinding referendum is a good way to finally put the question before the people to honestly allow the public to indicate what they would really like to do. By having it on the ballot next year, that would allow 12-1/2 months of vigorous debate, both For and Against.”
Six audience members spoke, and all were against the straw vote and potential consolidation, before some Delegation members stated their opinion.
“I have concerns,” began Representative Eagle. “We need viability studies to determine if it needs to be done, however if you are in Lee County and you can receive the same services while your taxes go down, then we should absolutely consolidate, but we do not have those answers, so we should take steps to get those. I would not support this the way it is written today but voters should not be frightened by a nonbinding vote, so I support getting the pulse of our community, so this is not such a bad idea.”
“For me, there are three key points,” said Senator Passidomo. “Is consolidation more cost-effective. The second is that ‘nonbinding’ means the final outcome does not affect the current situation. Last, I come at this from a different perspective, as I have been through two consolidations in Collier County, but those were a much more local-driven process. I am uncomfortable with the Legislature doing this from the top-down rather than the public coming to us saying, ‘we want to do this because we feel good about this and this is good for us.’ I understand where Representative Caldwell is going with this, but I have a problem with this being rammed down our throats. We have no citizens here, so we need to hear their voice.”
“I would like to give this question to the people soon,” Senator Benacquisto explained, “and ask what they think, and from my perspective, this is not being done. What impressed me during Hurricane Irma was the interconnectedness that already exists between all our existing agencies to give our community the attention it deserves, so let’s ask the citizens how they feel about this, so it is OK with me.”
“I represent a half-dozen fire districts in my District,” concluded Caldwell, “and for many of them, this is their only elected board over which they have control, as their fire and rescue service is a huge part of the conversation. I encourage people weighing in on this and a nonbinding referendum can achieve this, to put to bed this issues that arises in our community perennially, so I hope the nonbinding referendum will do just that.”
Following this, the Delegation unanimously voted to seek a nonbinding countywide fire district referendum for November 2018.