MARCO ISLAND — All was sweetness and light at the meeting of the Budget Sub-Committee of the Marco Island City Council last week, but City Manager Jim Riviere cautioned that the love-fest cant be expected to last.
"Everything's going along very smoothly, but that won't hold up when we get to the millage," he said during a break in the session at the city hall's first floor conference room. "That's when friendships are destroyed," and things get ugly.
"It's trench time – we'll be down in the trenches," said City Clerk Laura Litzan, sitting in on the meeting. The actual sub-committee is made up of three city councilors: Chairman Joe Batte, Frank Recker and Jerry Gibson.
"I think it's going pretty well," Batte agreed, reached by phone on Sunday evening. "This is a good opportunity for the City Council to get in on the budget from the beginning. The department heads live with these numbers every day, and we don't, so this helps us get a handle on it."
While all the myriad components of the budget may seem remote from the day to day concerns of the average Marco Island resident, it's a good thing that the city's elected leaders are taking seriously their responsibility to carefully husband the city's funds. Tied to that budget is the tax millage rate that will be charged to city property owners.
Wednesday's meeting was in the conference room due to a scheduling conflict, and was actually the first half of a marathon two-day session, which resumed the next day in council chambers. An earlier meeting in May dealt with the big picture items in the five-year Capital Improvement Project (CIP), and last week's meetings took up the city's operating budget – department by department, line by line, and virtually pencil by pencil.
Sometimes, a particular item got plucked out as a topic for extended discussion, while other categories were dealt with summarily. The "Jolley B. Good" road race event gave new meaning to the phrase "10-K run," when Community Services Director Bryan Milk reported that the race, inaugurated last year in conjunction with the dedication of the Jolley Bridge's new span, is being repeated, and the cost to run it was $10,000 – $10-K.
This year, additional budget is being sought to expand the race, said Milk, approximately $16- to $17,000, but at the end of the day, it probably won't cost the city anything, once sponsorship dollars and fees are accounted for. Committee members, plus Marco Island Taxpayers Association president Fay Biles, sitting in the audience, were not happy with the concept of not having bottom line numbers available. City Recreation Supervisor Alex Galiana promised to provide exact numbers.
The sub-committee tackled a larger item when it delved into the proposed replacement of the Community Center at Mackle Park. Milk noted that the original proposal for a 40,000 square foot building had not been well received, and called a "Taj Mahal."
Council members present expressed strong support for the scaled down, two-phase facility currently proposed. It consists of a 16,800 sq. ft. building to be built on the footprint of the existing structure, at a cost of $3.5 million, and a future gymnasium at a cost of $1.5 million.
Gibson seemed impatient to get the project underway.
"The building we have now doesn't perform," he said. "How close are we to condemning that building and shutting it down? Apparently, nobody cares."
"I think you're on the right track," said Recker. "The question is how much, how fast. Thousands of voters on this island would rather see a new center than a new (Smokehouse Bay) bridge."
Galiana reported on the heavy usage of the Mackle Park center, and said more would be possible if there were more space.
"People come here because of this," he said.
Police Chief Don Hunter and Assistant Chief Dave Baer presented the police department's request, which would bring the number of sworn officers on the force up by three to a total of 33, which Baer pointed out just returns staffing to the 2009 level. Their budget, which includes code compliance, as well as patrol officers, investigative, marine and administration, seeks an overall spend of $4.5 million, up from $4.2. In line with Hunter's philosophy, the department is seeking to become more efficient and intelligence based, rather than reactive, said Baer.
The fire department also took its turn at the table. The most significant change contemplated there is the proposed ambulance requested by Fire Chief Mike Murphy.
"That needs a lot of discussion," said Batte. "For the first time, that would put the city into the ambulance business for the first time in our history."
Acting city finance director Bob Lange, sitting in on all the departments' explication of their financial requests, got his own turn in the spotlight on Thursday when the sub-committee looked at the finance department, with its longstanding quest to obtain and utilize new accounting software.
"Every year we say go with it, and it never happens," commented Recker. Lange said the choice, with systems costing in the hundreds of thousands, is critical, and will require additional staff to run it.
"We need one and a half, maybe two people," he said, "professional staff, not clerical staff. We're talking about restructuring city records." The current, DOS-based system is antiquated, he said, and does not provide needed management reports.
Jeff Poteet, general manager of the water and sewer department, requested $1.5 million to run a water main across or underneath the Jolley Bridge. This could be key in an emergency, said Riviere.
"Should we have a disaster, and both our island water plants go down, we would have the ability to hook into the county water system and continue to supply water to our homes," he said. "Currently, we have no plan, except to run out of water."
All these and many other competing priorities, including "greatest hits" such as the Smokehouse Bay Bridge, will be considered, ranked and allocated by the budget sub-committee, which will then make its recommendations to the full city council.
"We've gone through all the departments' operating budgets, and the CIP. Now, we have the opportunity to go back to the beginning, and make suggestions and give our feelings or thoughts," said Batte. The BSC will weigh in on what can stay and what is, in 2011 sub-committee member Bill Trotter's phrase, a "nice to have, not a need to have" item for the city.
The BSC will hold at least one more meeting, at 9 a.m. on July 9 in the city council chambers. A meeting planned for this Thursday was postponed to that date. The full council will take up the Fiscal Year 2012 budget for its first reading at their September 4 meeting, and the final budget must be approved prior to that year beginning on October 1.
"I'm really happy with my two partners," Batte said of Recker and Gibson. "They cut right to the chase, so we get right to what we want to say. We've covered a lot of ground."