Cape Coral Conversations: City Manager John Szerlag (part 2)

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Today we conclude our two-part interview with Cape Coral City Manager John Szerlag.

In part two of our interview, Szerlag looks ahead and provides some insight on what residents, as well as businesses should look for in not only the coming year, but further into the future.

To read part-one of our interview with the city manager, click here.

 

Moving forward into 2016, what should the citizens be on the lookout for in the upcoming year from their city government?

Well, I would say, number one, it would be a continuation of the capital program that we have recently started. What they are going to see most of all is what is on top of the ground. They are going to see more median improvements; more roads repaved, more streetlights. They are going to see streetscape projects.

Under the ground, we just finished up the UEP SW 6&7 project. Which by the way, a huge project and as a manager I had one complaint. Very, very well run project. The North 2 phase of the UEP is going to be about $200 million, and we are gearing up for that as well. Those folks can soon expect city water and sewer. Not only is that an environmentally best practice, but septic tanks and fields are born to fail.

 

In addition, the North 2 and North 1 phases of the UEP are taking place in the geographical center of the city, a part of the city that in years to come will probably be the area most apt for economic development.

Absolutely, it will really help in our economic development efforts.

One thing that we do in Cape Coral that we have had such great success with because we have such a great community is we bring in stakeholders to take a look at issues and challenges. That helps us get the best solutions from more than one perspective, more than just staff’s perspective, more than just a proponent’s perspective on how you want to tackle an issue.

What people can expect in the future is essentially, and it has been ten years in the making is a species management or protection program. We have stakeholders on that. We have a stakeholders group on mobile vendors. We recently created a stakeholders group to address possible aesthetic design standards to address peoples’ concerns in regards to modular homes. We have a stakeholders group on being fair, fast, and predictable regarding our Department of Community Development.

In fact, I have a scoop for you. What we are looking at for faster inspection times is having a tale of two cities, if you will. Taking Pine Island Road, one day inspectors will be north of Pine Island Road and one day they will be south of Pine Island Road. That would cut the drive time for our inspectors would be essentially cut in half enabling them to make more inspections.

 

Was that a result of a stakeholders meeting?

Yes, we just spoke about that at a stakeholders meeting yesterday. It just came up and is a great idea that we are looking in to.

Also, I expect to approve an agreement next week to have an outside firm come in and augment our staff that we currently have and to help us get more inspections done on time.

I have always believed that the best approach to be a good service delivery organization is in areas where there are boots on the ground that determines our workload should be a hybrid. We determine the average workload of that area, hire at that level, then when you get a spike like we are having now, contract out, so when you go back down to the average level, there are no layoffs. We are looking forward to doing that, as well.

I try to not micro-manage my staff. In terms of online permitting, I told my staff to find the best online permitting system in the United States and just beat it. We hope to have about 90% of all the kinds of permits issued in Cape Coral online by this July. Then it becomes an educational process, and we will reach out to groups like the CCCIA (Cape Coral Construction Industry Association) to assist us in educating the contractors and builders to use the process. It will save them money. So, people can also look forward to that.

People can look forward to the conclusion of the Master Parks and Recreation Plan. The conclusion of the Seven Islands Project, which will again, include stakeholders groups.

 

I want to touch on the Master Parks and Recreation Plan. Can you explain what that is and why it is so important to the growth and future of Cape Coral?

Well, it is important because people want to aspire and live and identify with the community. They don’t want to default to identify with the community. And, what makes people want to aspire to live in Cape Coral? Public safety. They want it to be a safe place to live. Good infrastructure and maintenance, and quality of life are a big part of that, and that is where Parks and Recreation comes into the equation.

It has been a number of years since that plan was recalibrated. I believe 16 years or something like that. Our average age has come down from 62 to 43 years of age. So, you want to take a look at different venues, what you want to spend, how you want parks to be funded. Again, it is based on stakeholders that will make a presentation to city council. I have requested we take two kids from high school to be part of this process to get the view of our younger citizens. All of this is part of our strategic plan. The quality of life is hugely important. That is why it is so imperative to our city’s future.

Speaking of quality of life, when it comes to that a popular term in relation to that recently has become “assessment.” For example, if a group or neighborhood wants something like streetlights or sidewalks, the idea would be to get a petition signed of 50% plus one, and the city will install those items, and the property owners would pay an assessment for them over a number of years. Is that something the city is moving more towards, basically saying to residents and businesses that, “this is our budget for the year, anything above that we can do, but you will have to pay for it and here is the way to do that.” Or will it be something of a hybrid?

It is a mix of both. I am just talking now from experience. We had a special assessment program when I was in Troy (Michigan). It was not autocratic, if you will. It was democratic so that if there was an interest in an improvement generally it was a sidewalk, or streetlights, or street surfacing, the city would determine the project parameters, call a meeting with the affected property owners who would pay for the special assessment, and not be salesman, but rather show what the project entails and how much it cost, and how much it would cost them. And, there was always a cost associated with the city because often times there is maintenance savings on infrastructure. Sometimes there are enhancements that the city may want to accomplish.

So, we would determine the benefit for the city at large as well as the individual property owner, and then give them a petition to the property owner and tell them to go out and have the petition signed and when they get 50% plus one, bring it back, and then we would have a special assessment public hearing where people could add or subtract their name. It is more of a democratic process that we would like to advance. That requires a special assessment fund by the city otherwise, you are tapping the General Fund balance. But, I would like to go there eventually in Cape Coral. Because some people do want sidewalks. I have a six-year-old grandson. I wish there were sidewalks where my daughter lives. Other folks may want traffic calming devices which could be done by special assessments as well.

The CRA is another issue where SE 47th Terrace is under review for a possible special assessment for a streetscaping project. It will take a study to determine the amount it would cost to do that project and then the CRA would have to determine that if they wanted to move forward with it through the spending of their funds or by using a special assessment where the property owners in that area would fund the project.

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