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Extra effort needed

June 19, 2009
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

As the city of Cape Coral, the School District of Lee County and other governmental agencies look to new taxes or increased tax rates as a way to balance their budgets next year, others actually are figuring out how to maintain key services with less revenue.

Cases in point?

The Lee County Sheriff's Office and the Lee County Electric Cooperative.

Sheriff Mike Scott announced last week that his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2009-10 is 2.24 percent less than the current budget.

Sheriff Scott summed up his proposal with one word: "unprecedented."

We'll use two: painful and commendable.

Certainly the prospect of neither merit raises nor cost-of-living increases for good employees pinches pennies hard enough to leave a mark.

But the public sector is learning what the business community has known for more than two years: you can't hand out what you don't have, even to good employees who are doing more than ever - not if you want to maintain levels of service or produce the product that is your whole point of being.

In law enforcement, that's boots on the street, and Sheriff Scott says his $157,076,453 budget plan can and will maintain current law enforcement objectives for people footing the bill.

His proposed cuts are coming primarily from operating expenses (excluding personnel costs, which, on the law enforcement side he proposes to maintain); and capital improvements. He also plans to hone 8.5 percent from the cost of corrections to reflect lower inmate population numbers, while bumping funding to the court system to pay for mandated expansions there.

While the amount of reduction may seem a small percentage, the result is commendable, and we thank him.

LCEC, like a lot of businesses in the private sector, saw sales and revenues decrease last year.

Faced with lower customer counts and declines in consumption - along with higher costs - the public utility cut 10 percent of its mid-line managers and reassigned their duties to remaining staff; cut expanses by some $2 million; held the line on compensation increases that were not contractually mandated; and readjusted work schedules to mitigate overtime.

There are painful elements in this business plan as well but they will not be felt by ratepayers. LCEC says by managing costs, it will not need to raise revenues by asking for a rate increase for the upcoming budget year.

LCEC's efforts, which will not affect things like getting power outages rectified, starting service and the like, are commendable as well.

Cape residents, though, should not breathe easy, at least not yet.

The city of Cape Coral is considering raising those very utility rates itself by adding a new tax to our LCEC bills, a hefty 10 percent to each month's tally.

That's one way the city has proposed to balance its budget next year.

Another is an increase in the millage rate, the levy placed on property taxes.

A third? Severe service cuts - longer public safety response times and the reduction or the elimination of parks and athletics programs and city-sponsored public events.

Ouch! We feel the pain. Literally.

If there is a bright spot on the city budget horizon, it's coming from one of the Cape's unions.

Through a vote of its members, the Cape Coral Professional Firefighters Local 2424 has agreed to forego previously agreed upon raises next year, leading the way, perhaps, for other concessions by other employee bargaining units.

We certainly hope so.

Again, while the $350,000 "give back" by the firefighters may not seem like much when looking at the entire budget, it's a start - and an important one as the primary driver of the city's current $127 million operating budget is and has been burgeoning personnel costs.

We thank the entities (and their employees or members) whose thinking is reflective of current economic realities. They looked at not only the revenue and cost challenges they face, but also the realities faced by those of us who pay the bills.

There are ways to cut costs and maintain services; these agencies prove progress can be made in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the city of Cape Coral has much work ahead - much painful work ahead - if the goal is to maintain services by cutting costs instead of adding heading back to the "enhanced revenue" trough.

This promises to be a long, hot summer. Council better roll up its sleeves.

- Breeze editorial



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