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Fort Myers Beach Town, Fire Department to hold budget hearings Sept. 10

By Staff | Sep 5, 2018

September is budget hearing season on Fort Myers Beach.

The Fort Myers Beach Town Council will hold its first budget hearing Monday, Sept. 10 at 5:30 p.m.in the Council Chambers at Town Hall, 2525 Estero Boulevard. Its second and final budget hearing, at which the budget will be adopted, is tentatively scheduled for Monday, Sept. 24 at 5:30 p.m.

The Fort Myers Beach Fire Department will also hold its first budget hearing Monday, Sept. 10, beginning at 5:05 p.m.at the Fort Myers Beach Library. Its final hearing is tentatively set for 5:05 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25.

The millage rate is the rate at which property taxes are assessed based on property value. One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

Here’s a breakdown of the two budgets and what taxpayers need to know.

Town of Fort Myers Beach:

Total operating budget: $16.8 million

Tentative millage rate: 0.87 mills

2017 millage rate: 0.87 mills

Budget increase from property value increases: $90,000

Boundary: Fort Myers Beach only.

Town Manager Roger Hernstadt has kept the 2018-2019 fiscal year budget nearly identical to the 2017-2018 budget, and the millage rate will stay the same.

Hernstadt included his $65,000 lobbyist in this year’s budget – an expense that the council didn’t blink at during the August budget workshop when he read off the grants the town had received or is projected to receive in the last fiscal year: $500,000 for stormwater; $60,000 from West Coast Inland Navigational District; $65,000 for a new dingy dock; $1.34 million from the Lee County Tourist Development Council; $43,000 for boating infrastructure and a projected $2 million from Hurricane Irma recovery funding.

The town did have staff increases this year – a new staff person to handle the short term rental registrations, a new employee in the water department to replace an eminent retirement, and new employees to staff Building Services, which was brought in-house this spring.

However, many of the new positions are being paid for by the fees collected from the associated activities. Hernstatd said the short term rental registration fee has collected approximately $100,000, which will cover the salary of the employee for this year and next year. After next year, the registration cost drops to $50.

Despite having to open a new Building Services department, Finance Director Robert Lange said that move is actually saving the town about $500,000. The town was paying the county about $44,000 a year to outsource building service activities, as well as transferring any fees to the county.

“And, we were still paying to have someone in-house,” Lange said. “We moved the cost to user fees paid for by the developer or contractor.”

Staffing levels have been a hot topic in the town’s past – whether or not there were too many employees for “government lite.” But Hernstadt said he’s spent the last year carefully reviewing staff levels, as well as comparing Fort Myers Beach to its municipal peers.

“When you look at in-house and contracted staff, I will tell you based on my years of experience, we’re running a very efficient government,” he said. “(Any) new initiatives will require new staff, because we’re pretty much full-out with what our staff can do.”

Fort Myers Beach Fire Department:

Total operating budget: $14 million

Tentative millage rate: 2.6153 mills

2017 millage rate: 2.58 mills

Boundary area: Fort Myers Beach, San Carlos Island and Fort Myers Beach, San Carlos Island, and mainland communities up to Pine Ridge Road.

Fire Chief Matt Love said this year’s millage rate increase is funding needed positions in the department’s prevention division.

“The Prevention side isn’t totally staffed,” he said. “We weren’t behind, but just getting by.”

The National Fire Protection Association helps set national standards for fire departments, including providing a way to calculate the number of staff departments need based on their service areas and development.

The department didn’t increase staff to the calculated recommendation, but it will be adding three new positions: an additional inspector, a plans reviewer and an administrative billing position.

“The billing person is someone to manage the fees so the inspectors can be in the street more,” Love said.

The department recently learned that, like the Town of Fort Myers Beach, it would no longer be able to outsource plan reviews to Lee County. The department had to take on doing those services in-house, but Love said the Bonita Springs Fire Department stepped up and is helping the beach department by doing plans reviews in the meantime.

“They bailed us out,” Love said.

The additional staff increased the budget by $317,000; overall wages are also going up by 2.67 percent as part of the bargain struck with the local union.

Part of this year’s budget is decreasing the district’s dependency on millage rate income and transferring some of the financial responsibility into the fees charged to businesses for some services.

Especially in the case of the Life, Safety and Prevention division, only about 25 percent of their work is for general public education and need, Love said. The rest are business-specific services – which are being subsidized then with public funding.

“We’re trying to ease back, increase fees and subsidize less over time,” Love said.

Right now, 92 percent of the department is subsidized by taxes; with the 2018-2019 budget, the department’s backing that down to 70 percent and increasing fees to cover the other 30 percent.

This year’s capital budget, which is included in the overall operating budget, is $1.7 million. There’s a big-ticket item that has to be bought in this year’s replacement schedule: a new ladder truck.

The new truck will cost an estimated $1.3 million and will take approximately a year to have built; it will replace the old truck, which is more than 15 years old, Love said.

Love presented three budget options to the Board of Fire Commissioners; the same millage as last year, a more expensive millage, and one between the two extremes. The commissioners chose the middle option, which was 2.642 but were able to decrease some other expenses that brought the tentative millage down to 2.6153.

“We chiseled down the budget for some things,” Love said.