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New Year’s reflections

January 2, 2010
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Reality stalked the Cape in 2009 and as a city, we faced a frightening realization - the natural amenities of Southwest Florida aren't enough to ward off long-term recession.

Unemployment numbers already at the double digit mark edged past 14 percent. Meanwhile, the housing market continued to tank with the national real estate trend tracker Zillow naming Fort Myers-Cape Coral as one of the worst-performing areas in the country again in November as year-over-year valuations dropped nearly 27 percent and "negative equity" properties topped 60 percent.

While reality bared these sharpened fangs, residents made their choice - fight or flight.

Many left, adding to the foreclosure glut.

More, though, opted to take a another swing at what ails us by renouncing all things status quo.

Council incumbents?


Top administrators?

Ousted without outcry.

Ongoing utility expansion plan?

Stopped in its tracks by petition, public protest and political pandering.

Cape Coral residents in 2009 rejected anything and everything perceived to have contributed to the economic morass that has been deeper than projected, longer than expected.

The hoped-for change for the new year and, indeed, the new decade?

Rejuvenation - economic recovery through new leadership and frugal fiscal policies that can foster a fresh start.

As we ring in 2010, it's a good time to reflect and review the year that capped a rollercoaster decade of economic boom and bust. It's also a good time to think about what it means for the year ahead.

The ballot box wields the power

We can criticize low turnout all we want but Cape Coral voters absolutely hold sway over the city. And despite our big city population numbers, it doesn't take very many angry people to effect substantive change in our municipal government.

City voters rejected the two incumbents in November but approved no all-or-nothing mandate for either side of as sharply divided slate of candidates as any the Cape has seen in recent times.

And what a time the election of 2009 was.

While the two candidates seeking to keep their seats took the traditional route of touting achievement, neither the recently appointed Mayor Jim Burch nor the more-accomplished District 4 council member Dolores Bertolini was able to defend a collective weakness - council's overall lack of real leadership on key issues such as the Utility Expansion Project - or the elected board's decision to raise the tax rate while also increasing the monthly levy residents pay for water and sewer services.

Voters swept out the incumbents, choosing challengers John Sullivan and Chris Chulakes-Leetz, respectively.

They stopped far short, though, of a full endorsement of the challenger agenda of an administrative overhaul, another utility audit, a new comprehensive plan and a budgetary rollback opponents said would gut city services.

Voters rejected the remainder of the slate self-dubbed The Road Ahead, opting in the races that offered no incumbent for the more moderate views of Marty McClain in District 1 and Kevin McGrail in District 6.

So what does it mean?

Well, Cape voters did vote for change; we have four new faces on the dais.

But they did not come close to giving either side a blanket mandate.

Council would do well to remember this - Cape voters, as a whole, are a nonpartisan bunch. We're diverse and we're often divided - and therein lies the challenge.

This council can expect to be no more successful than councils past in making every resident happy with every vote. Council can, however, accept the subtle but definitive directive that underscores the 2009 election: That what voters want is not political rhetoric but leadership, officials who can make the hard decisions for the city as a whole without relying on the easiest of solutions, writing a blank check.

We suggest our new council members - and those facing re-election next year - take this mandate to heart. We need to start moving forward in 2010 and it will take leadership to get us there, leadership that can compromise and so heal the divide reflected so accurately with the recent election.

A commitment to leadership over politics should be council's first priority.

The city's administration

is not immune

to public perception

By charter, the city council sets policy and the city's administration, comprised of trained professionals in their respective areas of expertise, implements that direction on a day-to-day basis.

That's the theory, but in 2009 the premise was compromised as administrative operations came under fire by council critics who lumped staff in with the policy makers, blaming each equally for the burgeoning budget, rising tax and utility rates, and the construction of a new $96 million water plant based, in part, on growth projections made inaccurate by the failed economy.

City Manager Terry Stewart and Finance Director Mark Mason were among those who found themselves campaign bullet points as council challengers vowed to put an end to the "manipulating and deceptive practices used by the administration to sway public opinion."

We've never bought into the opinion that the public is easily gulled but we'll give the critics their due when it comes to elected boards, particularly weak boards that fail to hold their administrators to full account or rubber-stamp anything put before them.

At any rate, residents raised not a whisper of support when first Mr. Stewart, and then Mr. Mason, resigned after the election.

We wouldn't count on that silence continuing, though, if council misinterprets the lack of comment as an opportunity to further politicize positions that are intended to be apart from the fray.

The charter outlines the city's division of powers, granting all but day-to-day operations to the elected board. The reason council does not have that one responsibility is quite simple - it's protection for the taxpayers who foot the bills. It's assurance that staff positions not become political appointments and that these highly paid posts not be used for political machinations of the type seen in cities run by politicos with lots of goodies to hand out to cronies crucial to their campaigns.

For 2010, we suggest again, that council show strong leadership. A board that accepts its responsibility has nothing to fear from a knowledgeable and yes, strong and opinionated staff.

Two, that council quash any suggestion that professional positions in a city with an operating budget of nearly $120 million and the remainder of a billion dollar capital improvement project in the wings can be filled by either a politician looking for a paid position to which he was not elected or anyone else who does not have applicable - and we stress the word applicable - training and experience.

City administrative positions pay enough to get the best expertise out there. And we need expert, hands-on ability to get our city moving toward economic recovery.

Put hiring the best, most qualified individuals at the administrative helm as task No. 1 for 2010.

The utility expansion

project is far from

dead in the water

Cape Coral City Council wavered on plans to expand utilities to the neighborhoods dubbed Southwest 6/7 and the north Cape so many times in 2009 that residents on both sides of the issue united in criticism of the board's lack of ability to reach a consensus.

On the one hand, those facing assessments as high as $10,792 plus another $6,750 in impact fees in SW 6/7 and $6,000 for water-only for properties north of Pine Island Road protested such levies on houses already underwater in terms of money owned to the bank.

Property owners who already had to ante up, though, cried foul each time council deadlocked or reversed on the expansion because their utility rates were computed on a projected customer base that disappeared each time officials stopped the project.

Council couldn't please both sides and so pleased neither, failing to come to a consensus multiple times.

The new council has inherited the issue and it's not going to go away in 2010, especially since it's linked to the Cape Coral North Spreader Canal Ecosystem Management Agreement Process.

The agreement, still in draft form but necessary if the city hopes to get state approval for its removal of the northwest spreader, calls for triggers that dictate the installation of a sewer system when certain construction densities are met.

According to the latest draft, dated Nov. 28, the city will need to provide annual density reports to the state. Within 18 months of a report indicating that the most sensitive area - essentially the area north of Pine Island Road west of Burnt Store Road and South of Kismet Parkway - had hit 35 percent density, the city would have to award a contract for the construction of a public sewer system. That's award a contract, meaning the city would need to plan for said expansion well in advance of that trigger.

Other areas north of Pine Island Road would need to come online when 45 percent density was met, a standard closer to current state mandates for the rest of the city.

Council must have a plan in place - property owners need ample advance notice.

And lest anyone think these density requirements are too far in the future to matter, at least one area, around Ceitus Parkway, meets these thresholds now.

The UEP is not going away in 2010. This year, in fact, brings some hard choices concerning the fate of the billion dollar project that was scheduled for completion by 2017.

Council faces a pretty full agenda.

Add in the challenge of budgeting in the wake of another year of decreased property valuations and council certainly has a demanding year before it.

If 2009 was the year we opted to reject past policies and failed initiatives, may 2010 be the year of rejuvenation and fresh starts. And may council lead us in that direction.

Happy New Year. May 2010 be all you wish it to be.

- Breeze editorial



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