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Council divided over community policing, millage rate hike

Fort Myers Beach Council not sold on spending $234K annually to expand Lee County Sheriff's Office presence

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Sep 10, 2021

The Town of Fort Myers Beach Council has approved allowing the Lee County Sheriff's Office to utilize town property on Fifth Street for a new outreach center. / File photo

A community policing contract between the Town of Fort Myers Beach and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office would be the main driver behind an increase in the town’s millage rate from 95 cents per per thousand dollars of assessed property value to 99 cents per thousand dollars of assessed property value.

The contract continued to divide the council on Thursday at the first public hearing on the budget. The board is set to hold a second public hearing Sept. 16 at which point the council could vote to adopt the budget without a millage increase if it chooses not to sign on to a community policing contract.

In support of the contract are councilmembers Dan Allers and Jim Atterholt while Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros has stated that Fort Myers Beach taxpayers should not have to pay the Lee County Sheriff’s Office extra for additional protection. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office has a budget of approximately $204 million as per numbers cited at a county budget meeting in July.

The community policing contract would require the town to pay the Lee County Sheriff’s Office $230,000 a year for added services. The town currently contracts with the department to provide extra detail on holidays. Hosafros said town taxes should remain flat by not approving the community policing contract. Town Manager Roger Hernstadt said the town’s taxes would not increase if community policing was taken out of the budget.

The council’s disagreement over the community policing contract also includes differing expectations over what the town would get in return.

Mayor Ray Murphy said he was willing to support community policing if the department would pledge two more deputies to be dedicated to the town. As currently presented, he doesn’t believe there are guarantees on how much presence there would be.

“There are a lot of unknowns to me,” Murphy said. “If (Sheriff Carmine Marceno) wants us to buy into this community policing, then give us a few more deputies,” Murphy said.

Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros said the community policing contract would not double the department’s presence on the island. “We have a minimum of two police officers on the island. There are times, when we have more officers,” she said.

Councilmember Bill Veach said he supports allocating town funds on security cameras rather than spending $230,000 on community policing each year. The Sheriff’s Office, he said, has said “the beach is absolutely safe.”

Veach noted the community policing program would be a recurring cost each year which would raise taxes.

Councilmember Dan Allers said the cameras and community policing could both be afforded by the town. Allers said adding community policing would not change the policing program of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office when it adds more officers on holidays. “This does not change their core service,” he said.

Hosafros said that’s because the town pays more for additional protection on holidays through its contract with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. “We already pay extra for their additional holiday presence,” Hosafros said.

“Which is why I don’t think we should continue to pay them for ordinary, everyday policing,” Hosafros said.

“I also disagree that it benefits the entire island to have community policing because I think the majority of community policing is going to be centered on the Times Square area and it’s going to be centered on our visitors and not our residents. A lot of residents feel that it’s not going to be that beneficial to the people on the south end,” Hosafros said.

Atterholt compared the situation to a company hiring a private security firm. “If we don’t do it, we’re not going to get these officers,” he said. “We’re not going to see an increased police presence unless we take action,” Atterholt said.

Murphy said the sheriff’s office has been pushing the idea of community policing on the town. “I’m making a counter offer,” he said. Murphy asked the council how it would feel if the Sheriff’s Office agreed to dedicate an additional two officers to the town.

Veach said he thinks putting cameras in places people don’t feel safe is a better solution than spending more on community policing. “I’m a big fan of low-hanging fruit,” Veach said.

The town’s next budget hearing will take place on Thursday at 5:01 p.m.

The town is forecasting an increase in property values, with approximately $3.89 billion gross taxable real property and personal property value for the current year, which is up from $3.7 billion for the prior year according to the town’s certification of taxable value.

Among the town’s larger liabilities are a $10 million loan it is planning to use to pay for renovation projects at Times Square, Bayside Park and Bay Oaks. The town also owes approximately $20 million for its stormwater drainage and water main projects. 

New Sheriff’s Office Outreach Center at Fifth Street

At Thursday’s meeting, the council approved an agreement between the town and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to turn the former Ocean Jewels property at 1054 Fifth Street into a new outreach center for the Sheriff’s Office.

The property was formerly owned by TPI-Fort Myers Beach but was transferred to the Town of Fort Myers Beach as part of an agreement between the town council and the Margaritaville developers in 2018 for approving the 254-room hotel and commercial development with deviations.

Hernstadt said the Lee County Sheriff’s Office plans to utilize a trailer at the site.