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Florida CFO: We’re slowly coming back

April 13, 2012
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

They heard what he had to say, and they liked it.

That was what many said as guest speaker Jeff Atwater, Florida's chief financial officer, addressed business leaders and city officials at a dinner meeting of the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association Thursday at the Resort at Marina Village at Tarpon Point.

The message he gave: Things are slowly getting better in Florida and your spirit is needed to push it along.

"It's refreshing to hear it from the horse's mouth, straight from the top," said Nancy Dunning CEO of the Cape Coral Association of Realtors. "He feels our pain and experienced what we've experienced."

Atwater, who worked in the banking industry for 20 years, took the near- capacity crowd "down the path" Florida has taken since 2006.

"In 2006 the state's general revenue was $27 billion dollars. Twenty months later, it was $21 billion. It all changed," Atwater said. "How do we fill the gap? Who do we get it from? There were choices we had to make."

Atwater said, despite being hit the hardest by unemployment and foreclosures, Florida maintained its AAA rating by "doing the right thing," unlike California and New York, which meant making the tough decisions, such as Cape Coral did to maintain its AA+ rating.

"Florida will need to borrow $7 billion in the next seven years, the difference is the interest we'll pay," Atwater said. "New York would pay $360 million more, California would pay $1 billion more. When you mismanage debt, you take it out of people's pockets."

Because of this, and because people and businesses are more confident in general, Atwater said better times are coming, albeit slowly.

Atwater said revenues are picking up ($22.5 billion in 2011, with another $700 million projected for this year) and housing prices are creeping upward, though the numbers are still pretty paltry.

"In 2006, the average price for a home was $258,000. Now, it's $129,000, with 44 percent of homes underwater," Atwater said. "Twenty-two percent of homes are past due or in foreclosure."

But most important, he said, the Cape, and the state, has started to get its swagger back.

"Your officials will continue to honor the traditions you set as entrepreneurs," Atwater said. "You'll bring it back, they'll call you back, you'll hire again, you'll guide us."

During the question period, Pat O'Rourke asked about the job market. Atwater said it was up 120,000 since January 2011, with 15,000 to 20,000 jobs returning on a 45-day basis.

"We have to keep the enthusiasm for Florida, keep it low litigation, low regulation, make it more attractive for business," Atwater said.

Atwater hopes for 150,000 more jobs in 2012.

Atwater also criticized the way the government has handled banks and mortgages, especially the Dodd/ Frank bill.

"Dodd/Frank is awful. In the 1990s, 66 percent of families owned property. To solve the problem, government coerced banks to loan to people who couldn't afford them," Atwater said. "When government blew up the banks, they sued the banks."

He also addressed off-shore drilling, long-term obligations with pensions and the consequences of the court's decision on health care.

Most of those in attendance were encouraged by what Cape Coral has in store moving forward.

"I'm encouraged that the recovery, while slow, is upon us," said State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-27) "In an area that has seen the worst of the worst, we still have the pride, the work and the creativity to build a new model."

"The man is impressed by what we've accomplished here at the housing industry's Ground Zero," said Cape Coral Councilmember Marty McClain. "What an accomplishment to be at the bottom and still be on top. It's a city of survival and he finds it inspiring."

Atwater had to agree.

"Cape Coral has really taken ownership of its future. Other municipalities choose to be popular and think tough decisions aren't necessary," Atwater said. "Cape Coral made the tough decisions, were disciplined and served the city well."

Atwater added the spirit of area business owners will bring Cape Coral back.

"The spirit in the room was impressive. I don't think I've been more impressed with their attitude," Atwater said. "Especially those who took it on the chin."



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