MARCO ISLAND — City finances and budgeting continue to heat up. City Manager Steve Thompson compared the city financial process with that of renovating a house while it’s on fire. Council’s attempts to slash the budget may be politically correct, but are a disservice to the Island’s residents who want to enjoy their city, says Marco resident Steve Stefanides.
Despite changes in the Marco City Council meeting schedule, decisions and options for cutting about $440,000 from the 2010 budget continue, Thompson reported.
Stefanides, who goes by Stef, said everyone would go for lower taxes, but he thinks most Islanders have showed they trust their city government to run efficiently.
At the first scheduled budget meeting, what people cared most about, what they had to say was, “let the music play.”
Just before the budget discussions, chambers were packed with people to hear council’s decision to allow weekly live music events at the Esplanade.
“Once they knew their quality of life wasn’t impacted, they left.”
It’s always the same few people at every meeting, Stefanides added.
“Beating up the city has become a blood sport for a small percentage of our people.”
There were several residents at the second budget meeting, including members of the Marco Island Taxpayers’ Association board, former councilman John Arceri, as well as residents Joe Granda, Larry Magel and others, who pushed for council to take a closer look at the budget to bring faith that Council was doing their due diligence.
Stefanides maintains that the people who weren’t there were also making a statement.
Councilman Ted Forcht said it was challenging to make expensive decisions without more detailed financial reports. While he notoriously disapproves of most city spending, he doesn’t see Marco as an overgrown government, and, therefor, he finds cuts less necessary than in other nearby cities.
“We just didn’t have the assistants and the assistants to the assistants that other cities had. Most people in City Hall already have at least two jobs.”
Thompson continues to try to meet the direction of reducing spending as if council had adopted a millage rate of 1.6 mils, rather than the 1.6518 millage rate, or about $1.65 per $1,000 of property value, approved earlier.
That means cutting about $440,000 of expenses. The money is to be put into reserves for another year of anticipated property value declines.
“It’s a rush to do something politically correct rather than what meets the need of the people,” Stefanides said.
Councilman Bill Trotter and Thompson have discussed the cuts and Trotter was to provide a report to Council Nov. 2.
However, with that meeting canceled, City Clerk Laura Litzan said a full budget review is now scheduled Dec. 7.
A meeting is also scheduled 9 a.m., Nov. 9, followed by a special-called workshop at 1:30 p.m. between council and the Utilities Advisory Committee. The full agenda for Nov. 9 has not yet been finalized.
Trotter had requested comparisons of line items that increased from 2009 to 2010, among other detailed budget information that he and Thompson agreed would be available in most cities and organizations. However, the information was not readily available, Thompson reported.
“Let me first say that I share Dr. Trotter’s frustration with the management information available with the budget.”
Thompson plans to present financial information in a more usable format by Dec. 7.
“While the staff has many strengths, we continue to improve the accounting system, reporting format, and accuracy of information. The budget process and the other issues that we have faced over the past year have not, however, allowed us the luxury of pausing to create the information,” Thompson wrote in his Weekly Update Friday.
Thompson compared the financial process with renovating a burning house.
“We are trying to put out the fires, and at the same time renovate and improve the financial system as time allows. We are making progress, but again I share your frustration and I support the need for the information that Dr. Trotter has sought.”
In terms of budget cuts since the last Council meeting, so far, the city has frozen community grants.
Stefanides, as chairman of Christmas Island Style, which puts on at least one month of seasonal festivities each year, said no money is used for the parade or other events, but they do need police and fire service support.
The overtime incurred by police and other city services may cost about $3,000, he said
“If we start to lose all the fun things we enjoy as adults and as children, we start to lose what Marco Island is all about ... We all came to Marco Island to live, not to die.”
Thompson said that as directed by Council, he also made it a priority to cut education and training expenses for personnel.
“This is counter-productive to maintaining life and safety,” Stefanides said.
He added that any organization can increase efficiencies and he suggested looking at the employee cafeteria plan to see if it is in-line with what other cities offer.
Overall though, he said, the look for cuts is like “some sort of financial witch hunt” to “placate the few people who will never be happy with their city.”
Thompson said specific projects may also be eliminated.
“We’ll go from a really great city to a mediocre city,” Stefanides warns.