Cape Coral Conversations: City Manager John Szerlag (part 1)

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2015 was an important year for Cape Coral.

After suffering through the worst economic times in its 45-year history, the city began climbing back.

Leading those efforts from the City Hall side was Cape Coral City Manager John Szerlag. In 2015, Szerlag began implementing the initiatives that had been set in place since his arrival in 2012.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Szerlag to hear his thoughts on some of the initiatives launched over the past few years, as well as what he feels is in store for Cape Coral moving into the future.

In the first part of our two-part interview, the city manager shares what went into putting some of those initiatives in place over the past year, and what he feels are the impacts those decisions will have on the city and its citizens for years to come. 

 

Last year was an interesting year for Cape Coral in regards to laying the groundwork for the city moving into the future. As the city manager overseeing that work, how would you define last year for Cape Coral?

I would define last year as a transitional year for Cape Coral. The watershed day was May 22, 2015, when the Supreme Court of the State of Florida upheld the City of Cape Coral’s unique special assessment methodology for the fire district that was beneficial to single family properties and shifted more of that tax burden on to big parcels as it should. It was a year that was also transitional because it was still unknown if we would become sustainable as a community until that decision.

Being conservative, I held all the monies that we collected in advance. We were still funding capital upon failure and still had a massive hole in our budget. It was transitional in that after that date we went from being possibly unstainable to economically a sustainable community. And, with our three-year budget process, we know we are going to be sustainable for some time to come. We have a good capital plan now. And, I would hope that every municipality and county in the state would adopt a three-year budget. It really achieves clarity in terms of the vision for the community. What it is going to cost to run the city.

 

You bring up the three-year budget. That was something you brought in when you became the city manager in 2012. In your opinion how important is a three-year budget in regards to running the city?

It is very important because all issues have four arenas that they can be addressed from. One is the empirical arena. And I prefer to be an imperialist. That is my favorite arena. Then you have the legal arena, and as you know is not always empirical. Then you have the political arena, which as I define politics as an authoritative allocation of community values. Then you have the emotional.

By having a three-year budget, it takes more of an empirical view based on finite revenues that you project moving forward over the next few years. We are about 99% accurate on projecting revenues. We have a very good staff. Then we get to project our expenditures from an empirical perspective. And, the council, of course, has the ability to calibrate what is being presented. But, you do so in a functional manner based on where you are and where you want to go based on the revenues you have. It helps establish the level of service going out into the future. When there are limited resources often times, a budget is kicked down the road, or kicking the can down the road every year. When you look at it short term it becomes a little more political and a little more emotional.

 

And, easier to kick the can down the road.

Yes, exactly. It forces us to plan and be proactive given our revenue. And, it lets the residents know this is what they can expect to pay for these services. And, again there is an assurance from staff that they will always engage in best practices to find the most cost efficient and effective service level that is available.

 

I want to go back to the Fire Service Assessment. The creation of the assessment didn’t come without opposition. In fact, it, along with the Public Service Tax became a key focus in last year’s election campaign, with opponents of those initiatives calling the then current city leadership a “tax and spend” leadership. How do you address that label?

I would address it as people laboring it under misapprehension under that label.

 

In what ways?

Well, I would need to have an operational definition of “tax and spend”, number one. You could have the lowest millage rate in the United States and collected it and spent it; you would be a “tax and spend” municipality. I am not entirely sure of the entire connotation “tax and spend” means. If “tax and spend” means that you take an average house in another community with the same level of service, and that house would pay more money in Cape Coral, then a comparable city then I could identify with that moniker of being a “tax and spend” community.

But, we ran comparative analysis where you take a fixed value of a house in Cape Coral, use a checkbook approach and calculate all the costs it would take to run that city against the checks that were written by that property owner, and Cape Coral is favorably compared.

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