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Council approves .87 millage rate, budget

September 27, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

For the first time in years, the Fort Myers Beach Town Council voted to raise the millage rate.

In a 5-0 vote, the council approved the .87 millage rate proposed by Town Manager Roger Hernstadt, an increase from the .80 rate held the last three years.

The .87 rate is 87 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value. Someone with a home valued at $300,000 will pay $261 annually in ad valorem tax to the town, a $21 increase from the .8 rate.

This ad valorem tax revenue will contribute $2,776,842 to the town's budget of $16,816,765, which was approved in a 4-1 vote.

The $2.7 million tax revenue figure is calculated at 96 percent of the tax revenue incurred, to count the potential loss of revenue from homestead exemptions passed last year by Florida referendum.

Council Member Anita Cereceda dissented, saying she could not support the budget because it included a parking fee increase from $2 to $3 an hour.

"I didn't like the parking thing when Roger told me about it and I still don't like it," Cereceda said. "People think twice about spending $6 to go to Sanibel, and now you'll be paying $6 to eat at Smokin' Oyster."

Council Member Joanne Shamp said the parking increase could encourage people to use other modes of transportation to the beach, such as the trolley, or walking or biking.

The parking fee increase will act as a revenue source for a long-term capital improvement plan, a program the town lacked before and what became one of Hernstadt's top goals to create.

A re-instated position was budgeted for the 2017-2018 budget, to hire a finance director with a salary not to exceed $75,000. Robert Lang, who has been assisting with the budget process, will fill that role as a contracted employee.

Before, the town's finances were cared for by a combination of interim town manager Jim Steele and Director of Administrative Services Maureen Rischitelli, Hernstadt said. Rischitelli has retired, and Hernstadt will have her position's duties covered by Lang and another contract employee, Marta Fernandez, who will manage the town's human resources, insurance and procurement needs. Her contract is approximately $31.25 per hour.

Both employees are on contract, meaning they do not receive the benefits package a full-time town employee is offered, and each will work about 30 hours a week. Hernstadt said the town would spend less on the two part-time employees that one full-time town employee because of lack of benefits packages.

Lang noticed the town had erroneously been submitting sales tax to the state in excess of $70,000 annually; that cost-savings will help the town pay for his contract, Hernstadt said.

The council once again had the "annual teeth gnashing," a term coined by Shamp to refer to the yearly discussion about funding or not funding the two signature fireworks shows, Fourth of July and New Years Eve. Hernstadt had appropriated $52,000 for fireworks funding and told the council there was enough money in the budget to either contribute to half of each event or pay for one full event.

But there was a debate about how much one event actually costs, because the budgeted amount did not include the cost of the bill from the Lee County Sheriff's Office for extra officers on the beach during the event. The budget included $50,000 in a separate line item to pay for special police detail on busy holiday weekends and other high-volume times, such as spring break or Memorial Day.

"We need to be transparent about the cost," Vice Mayor Tracey Gore said. "It really costs $120,000 to do both."

She was including the estimates of sheriff detail and fire department assistance, as well as staff time. She and several other council members suggested the town should dedicate to paying for the Fourth of July event and fireworks and allow the community to fundraise and manage the New Year's Eve event.

Cereceda opposed dedicating funding to only July 4, saying that whether or not there were fireworks there would be people on the beach for the two holidays and the Sheriff's Office would bill them regardless. Since the town still plans to do the annual cupcakes for the town's birthday and the ball drop, Hernstadt said it is likely the Sheriff's Office will want to put more deputies on the beach on New Year's Eve even without fireworks.

"Anything that attracts a crowd, the Sheriff's Office will ask the town to contribute," he said.

The funding for that can still come out of the $50,000 pot; Hernstadt said the line could get fuzzy, though, about where the town's event stops and the privately-organized fireworks begins on New Years Eve.

"We've raised parking fees, raised the millage, cut salaries and we're cutting this event," Cereceda said. "This town deserves both."

The council approved funding to the Fourth of July event with a not-to-exceed amount of $72,000, which would include police detail.

Mayor Dennis Boback also opposed the funding in a 3-2 vote, because he didn't think the town should spend that much money on the event.

"I think it was a good budget," Hernstadt said. "It puts the town in a strong financial position."



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