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The sky isn’t falling

May 9, 2009
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

As expected, the budget picture painted for next year is bleak at best. At its worst, it's devastating.

According to a review document prepared by city staff and submitted to the Cape Coral City Council for discussion Monday, the expected $33 million-plus decrease in property tax revenues will affect the services the city provides to Cape residents. How badly and how much will depend on how deep - and where - council chooses to use its budget ax. Among the scenarios outlined, including worst case:

- Longer public safety response times in medical and fire emergencies, affecting patient outcomes and firefighters' ability to contain fires and so save your home or business.

- No city-sponsored events - no snow pile at the Festival of Lights, no Boat-a-Long activities, no Cinco de Mayo, no Sounds of Jazz, no Bike Nights, no Movies in the Park, no Tour de Cape, no KidsFest, no Veteran's Day Parade, no Coconut Festival, no, well, no city-sponsored events at all.

- No athletic programs - no 5 on 5 basketball, no youth or adult flag football, no softball, no Senior Games.

- Early closing of parks facilities and the elimination of multiple programs in aquatics and at Four Freedoms and Lake Kennedy. Or the outright elimination of the Aquatics Division, affecting an estimated 38,847 children and their families. The closure of the Arts Studio. Closure of Eagle Skate Park, affecting 27,904 children. Elimination of all programs at Four Freedoms Park, affecting an estimated 56,469 or more children and families. Closure of Pop's Cafe. Closure of the Rotino Center's 38 programs.

- Closure of the city's Mini Bus Transportation System.

- No school resource officers. No after school programs for Special Pops.

There will be some things we can expect more of, though. More litter in the parks. More graffiti. More unattended code violations.

Oh - and more or higher fees for anything left standing.

We'll hand it to the city - its administration can write a mean budget story, one as scary as anything penned by Stephen King in his prime.

Now we do agree that things are serious: The city is facing a potential decrease in revenue of $33.4 million to $35.7 million, based on a 35 percent drop in property valuations. City Council has directed staff to prepare a target operations budget of $116.4 million for next year. The current operations budget is approximately $127 million.

Things are a little frightening, no doubt about it.

We just don't think that hacking services to the marrow should be among the options on the table.

Realistically, we may be looking at some increase in the millage as the "rollback" rate - the level at which revenues from property taxes remain the same - is a hefty 7.5179 mills, up from the current 4.7698 mills, or about $4.77 per thousand dollars of taxable value.

But before the city considers increases and various new taxes - and certainly before it cuts into core services, before it whittles back on facilities, equipment and vehicles repairs, before it eliminates all vehicle replacement - it just makes sense to look at some of the things that have been on-going in the private sector for the past two years.

While there is some of this in the budget outline - things like tuition reimbursement reductions and cutbacks in paid professional association fees - there is not enough. The overall message is simply one of cutting programs and services and eliminating associated staff instead of tackling the tough internal issues such as contract re-negotiations, benefit or salary reductions, unpaid furloughs, shorter workweeks for hourly employees, and the possible elimination of departments that offer duplicate services.

For example, staff proposes to hone approximately $100,000 for marketing from economic development but paints no "catastrophic" scenario of consolidating operations with the county as it does with the elimination of parks programs. There is no similar scenario offered for certain Community Development operations, also offered by the county.

There are some tidy revenue enhancements proposed, though, including a new tax on electric bills and a new "assessment" for fire services.

By adding these taxes, and others, the city can keep the property tax rate artificially low and shift the cost to lesser noticed areas -resulting in higher costs for those who own the city's least expensive houses. The estimate is $137.59 more next year for the owners of a home worth $97,500 and $60.01 more for the owner of a $130,000 home. Of course if you own a house worth more than $162,000, it's estimated you could actually see a tax decrease so maybe the sky isn't falling after all.

We suggest council gird its respective loins, arm itself with some hard questions, and toss down to staff the gauntlet of definitive direction: Don't cut key services and do what is necessary to consolidate duplicated services and positions. Demand more efficiency instead of projecting doing-more-with-less as an onerous burden on staff.

The administration-prepared "review of council target budget" is just the start of what promises to be a long, arduous battle to approval come fall. There's lots of work ahead.

So toss out the scare tactics, put the more taxes/new taxes talk on the back burner and propose a budget we all can live with.

It can be done.

- Breeze editorial



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