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Use common sense during the upcoming city budget process

July 15, 2011
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Cape Coral City Manager Gary King submitted his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year to city council this week.

As proposed, the city manager's budget recommendation calls for no increase in the Cape's property tax rate and rolls back the operational expenditures by nearly 2 percent, overall expenditures by more than 6 percent.

The entire package - all funds, all expenditures - is set at approximately $445.06 million, down from 2011's amended budget of about $478 million, slightly up from the $444 million approved by council last budget session.

The general fund budget - the portion that funds government operations, including all city-provided services, including public safety - is proposed at $135.62 million, 1.9 percent lower than the 2011 adopted budget and 5.8 percent lower than this year's amended financial plan. Mr. King has set the expenditures portion of the general fund at approximately $112 million with the remainder - $5.19 million and $18.7 million respectively - in designated and undesignated reserves.

To achieve these reductions and keep the property tax rate at 7.9702 mills - approximately $7.97 for every $1,000 of taxable valuation - Mr. King has done a number of things. He proposes to reduce the city's workforce by another 5.8 percent. That's about 93 "full-time equivalents," mostly positions that are vacant but that also include some contract workers and some transfers. For example, those who held the now-eliminated school resource officer positions will be given the option of other police department posts.

There is one other key element to Mr. King's budget-reduction/no tax increase proposal and he gives full credit to city employees. Mr. King said he was able to cut $5.1 million in expenditures from the operations budget because of "significant contributions" from city employees who have agreed to reduced salaries and increased pension contributions.

We thank Mr. King for his efforts - his general fund proposal not only holds the line on expenditures but reduces them, while his maintain-the-tax-rate initiative actually will be a tax reduction for virtually all Cape taxpayers as, according to Mr. King, the state's "recovery" mandate has hit bottom. (Property owners of Homesteaded, or owner-occupied, properties, enjoyed a 3 percent cap on tax increases during the boom. State law, though, also allowed local governments to "recapture" up to 3 percent a year when home prices dropped. For many, that meant more paid out of pocket the last few years although property values decreased and tax rates didn't move.)

We also thank city staff and the various unions that represent them for being part of the solution.

The next step is up to the Cape Coral City Council, which has some tough choices ahead. The board can, of course, just endorse Mr. King's proposal.

It also can reject all or part of the submission; call for more or fewer cuts; raise or reduce the tax rate; or send the plan back to staff with instructions to hold to the "rollback" millage rate, which would keep revenues to last year's level, thereby giving property owners a bigger tax break.

A greater tax break, though, would require cutting deep into city services.

Mr. King has, in fact, offered council this option by tiering service levels via a detailed list that puts a price on various programs and services so council can contemplate any additional saving it may wish to make.

Want to save a chunk of change? Close fire stations No. 9 and 10, and cut another 22 full-time positions.

Want to save more? Close Pop's Cafe, Eagle Skate Park, the Youth Center, the Rotino Center, the Yacht Club pool or the Arts Studio. Or cut city contributions to community events and eliminate various youth activities and the Special Pops program.

Each has a price tag.

It is our hope that council - election year and four open seats or not - instead accepts Mr. King's recommended measured approach to tax rates and service levels.

Closing fire stations when both calls for service and the need for mutual aid from other departments is up would be a mistake. So would peeling parks services back to near zero, closing heavily used facilities and eliminating popular programs.

People expect - and deserve - some bang for their tax buck and that means getting more back than the privilege of keeping the dais and administrative offices open. To put it bluntly, if we are going to pay city taxes on top of a hefty county levy, there needs to be a reason, and it better be a plan that seeks ways to maintain a reasonable service level to justify the extra money - which none of us has right now.

Which is way we're not recommending a tax increase although Mr. King's budget has one very big hole - a lack of any funding whatsoever for any capital improvements for the second year in a row.

Council has a sound working document, thanks, again, to Mr. King and the entirety of the city's staff.

Start there and set the tax rate at the level Mr. King has recommended. It will give most of us a small break.

And yes, look for cuts that don't cut further into core programs and services levels which have been honed to the bone the last few years.

Instead, take a close look at the recommended reserves and weigh any remaining expendables such as cushy contracts and council's own annuity program that lets our elected officials carry five-figure payments out of office if they don't need city taxpayer-provided insurance.

The city manager has provided a workable, common sense budget.

Council should adhere to that very standard while developing its final financial plan for 2012.

- Breeze editorial



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