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Cape Coral mayor withdraws veto of police, fire budgets

Sep. 9, 2011

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Cape Coral Mayor John Sullivan withdrew his veto of the city police and fire budgets Thursday after the City Council authorized the city manager to lay off people or take other necessary steps to balance the 2012 budget.

The council also gave tentative approval to a $134.6 million budget and a property tax rate of $7.87 per $1,000 of taxable property value. That means the owner of a home with a taxable property value of $100,000 would pay $787 in city taxes.

The votes came after an afternoon protest by more than 200 police and fire union supporters outside city hall, and a rocky start to the public hearing: Sullivan and four councilmen walking off the dais until the crowd of about 150 quieted down.

City Manager Gary King has until Sept. 22, when the council is scheduled to cast its final vote on the budget and tax rate, to submit his plan to the council.

The proposed budget already eliminates 90 full-time positions.

The mayor’s veto reduced the police and fire budgets to zero. The city may have had to seek help from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office or a private firefighting service if the budgets were not restored.

The council voted 5-3 to give the city manager the authority to do what is needed to balance the budget, which has a $4 million shortfall. Of that, $2.6 million involves pay and compensation for police and firefighters.

That was enough to convince him the budget will accurately reflect what the city expects to spend next year on police and fire services, Sullivan said.

Sullivan and councilmen Bill Deile, Erick Kuehn, Pete Brandt and Chris Chulakis-Leetz voted to give King authority to reduce the forces or take other steps.

Councilman Kevin McGrail said the tax rate will save him just $11, not even the cost of a large pizza.

“This city council gave the city manager power to destroy lives and careers for 11 bucks,” Councilman Marty McClain said.

The council could have kept the rate higher and avoided layoffs, some councilmen said. The tax rate proposed by King was $7.97, but the council lowered that.

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King’s plan could eliminate 11 police positions.

His proposed budget includes options to lay off 911 emergency operators and officers. Some positions already are vacant or will open soon because of retirements.

The police union has offered to accept a 2 percent pay cut, but the city doesn’t want to talk about it, said police union president Kurt Grau.

An 8 percent pay cut, as proposed now by the city, will discourage people from applying for police jobs while creating more turnover, Grau said.

“I don’t know where we go from here,” Grau said.

Losing dispatchers increases the chance emergency calls will be answered by dispatchers working for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office or the Fort Myers Police Department, said Chief Jay Murphy.

The fire department also could absorb three layoffs, but it could eventually mean more overtime pay, Chief Bill van Helden told the council.

“Nobody wants to talk about the use of reserves. The city has $20 million in reserves,” firefighters union president Mark Muerth said.

“No policeman, no firefighter, no city employee has to lose their job,” Muerth said.

The city and union could work hard throughout the year to find savings, Muerth said.

Former councilwoman Dolores Bertolini said the council could save some money by eliminating the $9,000 annuity each councilman is entitled to if they do not accept city health insurance.

The public hearing was preceded by a two-hour demonstration in front of the city hall by more than 200 people upset with the mayor’s veto.

“It’s all of Cape Coral coming out and saying we’ve had enough of this,” said Dave Montrose, who organized the protest.

Sullivan was in his office during the protest, but didn’t speak to the marchers.

“They’re just a bunch of kids playing. They obviously haven’t read the memo,” he said, referring to his veto message sent a week ago.

Once the hearing began inside, Sullivan, Deile, Kuehn, Brandt and Chulakis-Leetz temporarily walked away from their seats after Sullivan announced there would be long breaks if those in attendance interrupted the meeting.

Grau and Muerth appealed to the crowd to be quiet, as did Bertolini, who told the gathering, “If we behave, he (Sullivan) has to behave.”

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