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Community leaders meet to discuss critical issues

June 4, 2014
Lehigh Acres Citizen

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto invited a veritable who's who in Southwest Florida politics on Monday to the executive board room at Florida Southwestern State College for a community leaders roundtable to discuss a myriad of issues concerning her constituents during the 2014 state legislative session.

Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki was among the many community leaders who came to discuss issues such as education, water quality, the elderly, public safety and poverty.

And while the contingent was grateful for all Benecquisto did during the session, as many of the initiatives they sought passed, they also said there was still much to be done.

For Sawicki, it was water quality that was on her mind, and she admitted that her first year as mayor has been quite the learning experience.

"Fort Myers has helped us a lot and I appreciate that we're moving forward and bringing it together," Sawicki said. "In our city with all the canals, there is such a need for water quality. We need the water to bring in money."

Sawicki also thanked the governor for not vetoing the reclaimed water pipeline going from Fort Myers to Cape Coral, which will give the city water it needs for irrigation.

"I look forward to working with (Fort Myers Mayor Randy) Henderson and how we can get that project in place," Sawicki said.

Councilmember Rana Erbrick also attended and made the city's charter school system the scope of her discussion with the state senator.

There has been controversy over how the state treats for-profit charter schools the same way as non-profit municipal charter schools.

"They're facing issues with maintenance and it needed to come to the city for help. We are not for-profit, so we need consideration," Erbrick said.

Erbrick also lauded Benecquisto for her involvement in getting the evacuation routes on the fast track, saying they hope the Pine Island Road expansion is finished before Oktoberfest, and in pension reform.

Afterward, Sawicki was impressed by how the community leaders were getting together to solve their problems.

"Everybodys' hearts are in the right place and that we made great strides in the last legislative session," Sawicki said. "It's all positive, we're moving forward."

As for what the Legislature can do for Cape Coral, Sawicki didn't see it that way.

"They've done whatever we've reached out for help on. It's about Cape Coral getting better at asking," Sawicki said. "What is it we want and make sure we communicate it."

Benacquisto did more than her share of listening as FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw gave a state of the university address in which he announced applications are up more than 60 percent (even more for out-of-state residents) and that the school has kept its tuition and fees flat for the coming year.

Meanwhile, at the newly named college, President Jeff Allbritten said the new moniker doesn't hide the fact the university is aging and that it needs new buildings and a new student activity center and is holding its breath to get state funding. It does, however, have 1,000 new applicants.

On the K-12 front, School Board Member Mary Fischer said Lee County has expanded its career certification, as well as get more students, especially girls, to take more advanced classes, although she stated her disappointment in this year's funding and that state testing has taken up way too much time from learning.

There was also discussion on how to better prepare people who have been incarcerated for the real world, as well as talk on how to prevent those at risk from a life of crime in the first place, which admittedly is a delicate balancing act.

"We don't do enough. All we do is encourage them," Benacquisto said.

Another balancing act, said Fort Myers Police Chief Doug Baker, is the protection of the Second Amendment and making sure people who shouldn't have guns don't get them.

There was no question on how to handle sexual predators; by locking them up and throwing away the key.

"If you do that, you're going to jail for a long time. Anyone who harms a child that way, there's no way to rehabilitate them," Benacquisto said.

As for caring for seniors, everyone admitted that is the most complicated issue facing all of Florida, as many initiatives didn't get signed.

And while those living in nursing homes can get a few more perks and better personal care, the real issue is how to service seniors with Medicaid-managed care.

"The challenges of health care are great. We have systems that don't work properly and we have mandates from the federal government that burden the system, and we need to work with all the stakeholders to be sure we can build on the successes of taking care of seniors," Benacquisto said.

Benacquito said these talks are important, as they shape the focus of the legislative session.

"It was great to meet with the caliber of folks here because they help develop the priorities we carried into session, and today we shared the successes and looking forward, what we can do together," Benacquisto said. "We got a lot of good ideas.



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