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Council should consider FAC recommendations

August 28, 2009
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Each year a group of council-appointed volunteers scrutinize the proposed budget for the city of Cape Coral.

They meet with department heads, break expenditure totals down into specific costs and examine the programs and services to be funded.

Because they are not elected, FAC volunteers recognize no sacred cows and their budget knives are sharp when they eye a fat target tucked among the routine and the mundane.

The committee spends hours on these tasks and the recommendations the panel presents to council - which usually ignores the efforts although its thanks are profuse.

We hope this year will be different.

Among its suggestions, the FAC has homed in on the primary challenge the city faces as it attempts to bring expenses down to meet dwindling revenues.

Personnel costs are the lever that moves the general fund budget.

And personnel expenditures, particularly salaries and benefits, are especially difficult to chip away at once they have hardened into the budget structure.

During the boom years, when revenue from property taxes rained in like manna from heaven, employee compensation rose to a high-water mark. Double digit raises for "underpaid" management employees. Merit raises. New job classifications warranting a bigger baseline salary. New contract mandated "step-in-grade" raises that adjusted wages upward retroactively for time on the job with more to come with each additional year of employment. More benefits, better benefits, buybacks and buyouts.

These floodwaters linger although the tax revenues have long since receded.

The city administration proposes an across-the-board wage freeze this year and negotiations with all of the city's unions are under way.

That's a good start.

But, as the FAC points out, it's only that, a beginning that does little to address what FAC chair Steve Riggs refers to as the "imbalance" between the taxpayers - and the benefits offered by private enterprise - and city employees.

Consider: In the private sector, the rule of thumb is benefits are 20 percent of personnel costs. In the Cape, it's around 38 percent - the highest public sector benefit cost in Lee County - and, according to the FAC, set to go higher next year due to increased pension and health care costs.

The FAC recommends that the city take a hard look at personnel costs, starting with that wage freeze the administration recommends but delving deeper and then moving on to the benefits side of the equation.

The FAC concludes that the city should also consider across-the-board salary reductions on a sliding scale, one-week furloughs, shorter work weeks, the combined effort of continued overtime controls coupled with comp time in lieu of that overtime, and additional reductions in work-force.

The committee also recommends that employees start paying $50 per month toward their own health insurance - which currently is free - to save taxpayers about $1 million in the next budget year.

The leave policy program should be reviewed so the city can both standardize the program and reduce the hours that can be accumulated, the panel recommends. The leave buy-back program, which allows staffers to "sell" accumulated sick and vacation time back to the city, also should be revised as it is a $9.2 million liability, the FAC maintains.

The committee also reiterated a recommendation made last year: That to reduce these benefit costs from 38 percent to what the FAC views as a more realistic but still generous 30, that the city hire a consultant to identify how the reduction can be accomplished, resulting in a projected $10.1 million savings.

Most of these suggestions have merit and deserve discussion - in-depth discussion - by council.

We suggest that council set a separate workshop for the FAC recommendations this year. The city has to address the long-term implications of personnel costs built into the budgets by councils past, a "legacy" to taxpayers in the years to come.

The taxpayers, who apparently will be asked to pay a hefty increase in the tax rate next year, need to see that council is working hard to establish a better balance between those who pay and those who receive.

Start now.

- Breeze editorial



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