Cape Coral City Council on Thursday approved a $135 million operating budget.
That's down slightly from last year's adopted document, and the plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 also contains a small reduction in the property tax rate - .1 mill, or 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
For the city portion of their tax bill, Cape property owners will pay about $7.87 per $1,000 as opposed to the current $7.97.
The process that led to Thursday night's quick-and-clean passage was far from painless, however. Outsourcing speculation, layoff memos, notices to potential pink-slip employees, and even mayoral line-item vetoes for the entire police and fire budgets fueled protests and angry outcries.
When all was said and done, the final budget proposal presented by City Manager Gary King and approved by city council contained none of these things - no layoffs, no outsourcing of public safety functions, and no outsourcing of maintenance or operations of Coral Oaks Golf Course, which council discussed Monday night.
Instead, the city's administration will look for savings throughout the year by seeking better deals from vendors, by not filling non-key vacancies as they occur, and other means.
For those opposed to deeper cuts into police or fire staffing, the news was good as it was, perhaps, for those opposed to the city relinquishing some or all control of its popular and renowned municipal links.
During the budget session Thursday, a majority of council indicated a lack of support for outsourcing operations but, as of press time, discussion of various proposals to turn over maintenance, management or to actually lease-out Coral Oaks remained on the City Council agenda for Monday.
Whether this means the issue is off the table or sets the sideboard for the cost-savings scissors to begin their snip-snip of personnel or services even before the new fiscal year begins remains to be seen.
Let us be clear here: We have no issue with outsourcing as a fiscal option. As we have stated previously on these pages there may very well be areas within municipal operations where outsourcing makes sense, where the private sector can provide services more efficiently and at a cost savings.
Profit is not a dirty word - it's the best motivator in the world. Public-private partnerships certainly can be a good thing for taxpayers and communities alike.
But as the public safety budget debacle and the process used to bring the golf course proposals forward illustrate, the city needs to approach its exploration of outsourcing in a different - and markedly better - way.
Plainly put, council needs to drive this process, not the city administration, as the decision to proceed or not always lies with the policy makers.
For make no mistake: Decisions to use outside management or providers is a policy decision.
Meanwhile, the city lacks, well, any policy or plan at all for shedding services or facility operations.
The result is staff devoting time and resources to drafting, advertising, seeking, vetting and bringing forward proposals where neither council nor the community - i.e. those paying for said services and capital amenities - have weighed in with even a tactic signoff.
Case in point, Coral Oaks.
We suggest a couple of things.
First, that council take control. Discuss areas for exploration. Investigate what other cities are doing successfully. Delineate areas where council believes the city should retain the reins. Garner some preliminary citizen input, especially if it involves taxpayer-paid-for infrastructure or involves a major change in how services are provided.
Then develop areas of opportunity. Again, we agree, they are out there. Give staff some direction and let them do what they do well - bring proposals back to council for further discussion, evaluation, and input.
If this budget process has taught us anything, it's that the city of Cape Coral has few resources to waste.
A more focused approach is needed here.
And council needs to provide it.
- Breeze editorial