City Council approves Fire Assessment

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It has been a case of would they or wouldn’t they, but, Cape Coral’s City Council decided last night to move forward with the proposed Fire Services Assessment.

Citizens representing both sides of the issue poured into Monday night’s city council meeting to express their views on the controversial assessment.

Those opposing the assessment argued the money needed could be found in expense reductions rather than charging property owners more in taxes and assessments, “Cut employees, cut wages, like many other businesses are doing across the United States,” Cape Coral resident John Kazmarek told the council. ”There are a lot of taxpayers who cannot afford $150, $200 a year.”

Those in support of the assessment say it is needed for city infrastructure upgrades and repairs such as, equipment replacement and road resurfacing. Northwest Cape Coral residents Darryl Teblum and Richard Pace showed pictures of pot-holed filled roads in their respective neighborhoods as reasons he supported the assessment, “It is a shame our city has to live with conditions like this,” said Pace. “By whatever means it takes to get the money to improve these roads is what we need to do.”

At Monday night’s meeting, City Manager John Szerlag presented two options to the council regarding the assessment.

The first option would see the city recovering 38% of the annual cost to provide fire services. The assessment would generate $12.2 million in fiscal year 2014 with $5.8 million used for vehicle and equipment replacement. An additional $6.5 million will be used to resurface 80 miles of Cape Coral roads. The resurfacing of roads was a significant priority for council member Kevin McGrail, particularly those roads in the northern section of the city that still drive on the original roads laid over 50 years ago, “We have continually told those residents in the North Cape that we will eventually pave their roads. It is time we do just that. They have waited long enough.”

The second option presented by Szerlag was to delay the Fire Services Assessment until fiscal year 2015. Rana Erbrick was one of the council members supporting this option.

Erbrick stated that, with all of the issues surrounding the assessment since its introduction, the city would be more responsible to wait until all of the questions were answered about the assessment, “It seems like every time you turn the corner something else is going on. We need to just step back, take a breath and bring this back next year.”

The council seemed split on which direction to go with the assessment. In the end, it came down to the most vocal member on the dais regarding the assessment, council member Derrick Donnell.

Donnell had originally been for the assessment, but after finding out the assessment needed to go through bond validation, and then could not be tied to the proposed one millage rate reduction to property owners, he became frustrated with all of the unforeseen issues facing the assessment, “I have been struggling mightily with this one. It is like every step of the way it is something else.”

However, Donnell said, after much reflection and research, in the end, he felt moving the assessment forward was still in the best interest of the city, “At the end of the day in know this is the right way to move the city.”

With Donnell’s support, the assessment was approved with a 5-3 vote nearly six hours into the meeting. Council Members Donnell, McClain, McGrail, Carioscia, and Nesta voting for the assessment, and Council Members Erbrick, Chulakes-Leetz and Mayor Sullivan voting against the assessment.

Property owners will receive a separate bill for the Fire Service Assessment sometime in the beginning of 2014.

With approval, the city’s proposed “three-legged stool” to economic sustainability and revenue diversification is in place. In June, the council passed the 7% Public Service Tax, which will begin showing up on citizens’ electric bills in October. Along with the Fire Service Assessment, the city council also approved a .25 reduction in the upcoming year’s millage rate.

The city says the average homeowner ($150,000 market value home with $100,000 assessed value) should expect to pay $150. That amount includes the Fire Service Assessment, the Public Service Tax and a .25 reduction in the upcoming year’s millage rate.