MARCO ISLAND — Voters will have their say on six proposed changes to Marco’s City Charter tentatively scheduled for a January ballot. One of the amendments could change budget discussions dramatically.
The Charter Review Committee voted unanimously to amend the spending cap, but questions remain as to exactly how to amend it.
Committee member Monte Lazarus calls the effects of the cap a “death spiral.”
Marco Island Taxpayers’ Association President Fay Biles said they idea of amending the cap nearly made her fall of her chair, adding “it all depends on how you amend it.”
The committee presented all the changes to council on Monday and council gave their consensus for the committee to move forward with their current direction. The area that Councilman Jerry Gibson said needed more clarification was the spending cap amendment.
Currently, the charter committee is suggesting to amend the cap by not allowing the budget to ever go below 2008 levels.
“What does that mean?” Gibson asked.
The idea is that if 2008 remained the base year, the city would avoid the future ramifications of having budgeted below the spending cap, which they did for the first time in the city’s 11 year history in Fiscal 2009.
They may be planning to spend below the cap again, although as of press time, the Fiscal 2010 budget as not yet complete. A special called meeting is planned for Friday.
The spending cap, which limits spending to no more than 3 percent plus COLA more than the previous year, was the provision in the charter that convinced a skeptical electorate to approve Marco’s cityhood.
Lazurus calls the cap, which was amended in the past, unconstitutional.
Despite the unpopular stance Lazurus takes, City Attorney Alan Gabriel couldn’t deny all of Lazurus’s legal points on the issue.
Gabriel advised that the amendments to the charter may have taken away the initial protection of the Special Act of Legislature that approved the charter and spending cap years ago.
“That didn’t give me a warm, fuzzy feeling,” said committee member Joe Granda.
“The Florida Constitution and statutes prohibit the government units from using cap devices to distort the budget process,” Lazarus said.
“I’ve watched the behavior of people here where the accounting rule says ‘use it or lose it.’ That’s a shame because it’s become a cancer. It’s a cancer on the thinking,” said committee chair James Riviere.
Gabriel has said the spending cap was legally defensible, but if the attorney general gives an opinion that Marco’s cap is not legal, then Marco can’t keep the cap.
Lazurus and Biles both plan to charge ahead with asking Attorney General Bill McCollum his opinion.
Chairman Rob Popoff said it will be very important for constituents to understand the importance of voting for amending the cap come January.
“Yeah, but they won’t. I’m not willing to gamble,” Gibson replied when setting the millage rate Monday.
Councilman Chuck Kiester said he doesn’t think the cap needs to be a goal to budget up to every year.
“Let’s sit back and do what we have to do at the time. I don’t see the dire consequences of losing the ability to tax a few million dollars 10 years into the future,” Kiester said.
The committee also recommended these five other changes:
1. Any expense more than $12 million shall be approved by ordinance, not resolution. The history is that the controversial sewer project passed by resolution. An ordinance allows 10 percent of electorates to petition against an ordinance after it passes, but they cannot petition a resolution. Gabriel advised a conflict with state law may require further look at this proposed city charter change.
2. City Council members get a raise from $6,000 per year to $9,000 per year and the chairman will get paid an increase from $9,000 currently to $12,000 per year beginning January 2011. COLA will be added each year after. Committee member Jack Patterson thought it wasn’t the time. Riviere said after reviewing other cities’ compensation to council members, it seemed reasonable. Resident Bill McMullan said the 33 percent increase may cause voters to “overreact,” though he acknowledged it’s not a lot of money.
3. Beginning with the 2014 election, no council member will serve more than eight years.
4. If five of seven council members support it, council may investigate any city department or employee. The impetus for the review of this part of the charter was Vice Chairman Frank Recker and the questions following former interim-City Manager Dana Souza’s transition report.
5. City manager must communicate to council immediately any possible deviation from the budget of $250,000 or 10 percent, whichever is lower.
The city charter is currently about 12 pages and after the proposed changes, will remain a relatively short document, prompting council to praise the committee.
Gabriel is working on the specific language to the amendments and the ballot, which council will review before Dec. 1, when the ballot options must go to the supervisor of elections to make the January ballot.