ESTERO — The recession has been blamed for a myriad of ills in southwest Florida, causing both public and private institutions to tighten their belts. While recession has forced business closings, abandoned development plans and home foreclosures, the ugly “R” word is also spawning some creative cooperative efforts.
Take, for example, the Estero Fire District’s “functional consolidation” with Bonita Springs and San Carlos Park. Sharing costs for supplies, coordinating training, and sharing personnel has saved each of the districts thousands of dollars, their chiefs report.
Now Estero leaders are aiming to partner with Florida Gulf Coast University as it drafts its expansion plan. Both Estero and FGCU are currently updating their master plans, so the efforts ought to compliment each other, said Don Eslick, chairman of the Estero Council of Community Leaders (ECCL).
“The university is a sleeping giant here immediately to our northern border,” Eslick said at Friday’s ECCL meeting at Estero Community Park. “It has so much potential for the community.”
The university is projecting its student population will double in the next 10 years, with about 18,000 students commuting to campus. “That’s a lot of transportation,” Eslick noted.
Along with coordinating public transportation initiatives, Eslick hopes FGCU will consider planning an area outside of the current campus for student housing. Some Estero communities have reported issues with students renting homes and drawing a late-night party crowd. It would be better to design off-campus housing, rather than let it happen haphazardly, Eslick said.
Estero offers several commercially zoned areas close to the growing campus which would be ideal for student housing, he noted. “If you’re going to have student housing, it ought to be designed and planned,” Eslick said.
Unfortunately, the current draft of the FGCU Master Plan does not address anything outside the campus boundaries. “It did not seem very farsighted,” Eslick said.
ECCL Vice Chair Nick Batos agrees. He proposed off-campus parking lots with shuttles to help alleviate traffic from commuting students. FGCU will take its Master Plan to Lee County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) May 20. Eslick plans to attend and hopes the university will consider broadening its scope to dovetail with the Estero Community Plan.
“We’re very interested in trying to coordinate that effort,” Eslick said.
At the county level, the recession continues to drive innovation, as well, noted Assistant County Manager Pete Winton, who was the guest speaker at the May 13 ECCL meeting.
“Generally, we have a good story to tell at the county,” he said. “We have reduced the size and cost of government over the last three years.”
The county’s workforce has been reduced by fifteen percent through layoffs and attrition. Benefits also have been tweaked so county employees are paying more of their own healthcare expenses, Winton said.
The county has held the tax rate flat at 4.15 for the last four years despite a tax revenue base which has dropped by 42 percent, Winton noted. The shortfall has been subsidized by using reserves.
“The trick is we don’t want to spend them down too low,” he said. “You can’t let your revenues drop by $200 million and not do anything. It’s not sustainable.”
Service levels have been largely unaffected up to this point, but they may have to be altered in the future, or the county may have to increase its millage rate, Winton said. “Right now, we’re just squeezing, squeezing, squeezing.”
Estero Fire Chief Scott Vanderbrook is also working on his department’s budget, with projections that property tax revenues may fall by as much as eight percent. He ensured services will be unaffected due to a healthy reserve fund.
As revenues continue to drop, call volume has slightly increased, Vanderbrook noted. Estero firefighters recently have been called on to assist with multiple brush fires as dry conditions persist.
“We’ve been all over southwest Florida assisting other agencies,” Vanderbrook said. The fire district’s annual budget workshop is tentatively set for July 14.