As it did three weeks earlier in a budget workshop session, Cape Coral City Council members sat down with the last eight department heads Wednesday night to hear their specific needs to be addressed in the current Fiscal Year 2015 budget process as well as future budget cycles.
Council heard from the heads of fire, police, parks & rec and public works departments at the Aug. 7 workshop. This time it was the heads of finance, human resources, IT, city clerk, economic development, community development, utilities and utilities expansion departments.
In both sessions, department heads stressed the need to revive capital improvement expenditures since it has been neglected for years during the economic downturn. They also put the spotlight on a need to increase staff now and in successive budgets. Additional staff needs goes hand-in-hand with the city planning to hand out pay increases as all employees have gone without any raises since 2007.
City Manager John Szerlag told the panel that time is running out on a millage rate decision for 2015. The Florida Supreme Court still has not ruled on an appeal of the Fire Services Assessment methodology lawsuit, but the court has returned to session after its summer hiatus.
The FSA is a new tax added for 2014. It essentially funds a portion of fire services operational costs, which previously were funded with property tax money. By adding the tax and shifting costs into the assessment, there is more money left in the general fund from property taxes for other things.
The city mailed FSA bills to homeowners in the spring to be used in 2014, but until the lawsuit is resolved the money was placed in an escrow account. If the court rules in favor of the city the money is there for immediate use. An unfavorable ruling means it would be refunded to those who paid it.
The city still has to decide if it will mail bills for 2015 themselves this fall, or bill homeowners through the Lee County Tax Collector.
Financial Services Director Victoria Bateman told council that, "Basically we are just surviving." She rated the department's level of service at poor because she is short four accountants which means it takes staff longer to get the monthly reports out. She added that she has six unfunded vacant positions that need to be filled, "In order to get back to a good level of service."
A key piece of the human resources department is adding three full-time employees and a learning management system, a software program that costs $20,000, to get the department to a good level of service.
Szerlag told council that he would work on finding the funds for the learning management system.
City Clerk Rebecca van Deutekom's presentation shed the most light on just how understaffed the city has become through the economic downturn. The management of public records alone has backlogged the department to the tune of 420 boxes of documents and 922 rolled plans and blueprints that are housed in a climate controlled warehouse waiting to be electronically scanned. About 84 percent of all records requests come through the building division.
"We can't keep up with the demand at the current staff level," van Deutekom said.
The clerk's office, however, jumped at the chance to open a passport service when the Lee County service shut down several years ago. The passport service has generated more than $360,000 in revenue since it began in 2010.
The economic development office has attracted approximately 35 businesses to Cape Coral this year with a staff or three. To get back to a good level of service, Director Dana Brunett proposed adding one employee, which would get the office back to the level it was before the downturn. It's operating budget was reduced by 64 percent during the downturn.
"In my mind, EDO is No. 2 in importance in the city," said Councilmember Richard Leon. "Its budget being less than one-half of one percent of the city budgets what's wrong with Cape Coral. I want to see it increase in the coming years."
As far as the utilities department, Director Jeff Pearson announced that no rate increase is recommended for 2015 and current projections indicate no need for increases for the next five years. The department's financial management plan has been upgraded to A from A-minus by Standard & Poor's.
The utilities expansion is rated at a good level of service and department is in the process of hiring three employees to keep the construction project moving forward at an acceptable pace. Southwest 6 & 7, currently under construction, is expected to be completed in 2015.
The project then will tackle North 2 through 2017 and North 1 between 2017 and 2019.
The first public hearing on the 2015 budget is set for 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 4, in Council Chambers.
Council will not meet Monday due to the Labor Day holiday.