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New Year’s Resolutions

December 29, 2012
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

After a half dozen years fraught with bad economic news and more than a little local controversy, 2012 may well be remembered as the year Cape residents saw some light at the end of the tunnel.

Property values bumped up a bit, housing prices have seemingly stabilized and "inventory" - the number of properties on the market at any one time - has fallen.

That's good news, indeed.

Also on the plus side, unemployment rates have dipped and, while the number of our neighbors looking for work or who are under-employed is still too high, the job market, too, has seen improvement.

Meanwhile, the voter re-configured city council and new administrative team dealt with some longstanding issues with nary a nasty flareup.

Issues addressed in 2012 include the next phase of the city's billion dollar utility expansion project; union contract talks to bring future obligations under control; movement in the on-going dispute with Lee County and environmental groups over how to best protect water quality in the north Cape; implementation of a plan that will protect both Cape property owners and a threatened species, the Florida scrub jay, which has established a handful of family communities on property the city hopes will one day become Festival Park; and the city absorption of the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency.

The council majority is to be commended for both its actions and the manner in which it has comported itself though perhaps we should complain there was hardly a headline to be had from a board that has put business first and left political rhetoric almost - almost - at the polls since the last city election.

So what lies ahead for 2013?

It's still the economy

While unemployment has dipped to 8.3 percent -down from 10.5 percent in November of 2011 and an abysmal 13.2 percent in November 2010, the No. 1 priority has to be putting people back to work.

The Cape will, fortunately, see some real job creation this coming year and the next as the private sector naturally develops in and around the so-called Veterans Investment Zone around the Veterans Administration Healthcare Center that opened this month.

These will be "real" jobs - skilled and professional positions that pay well.

However, as we stated last year on these pages, the Cape still needs to remember its economic driver.

That is construction.

While council agreed in 2011 to waive hefty "change of use" fees assessed to businesses looking to locate into an existing commercial buildings vacated or originally planned for another type of enterprise, the board did little this year to make new construction a viable option.

As we also stated last year at this time, waiving similar five-figure fees - more than $18,000 for an average home at last count, including the fees assessed by the School Board of Lee County - for residential construction would provide a very real economic boost.

Our elected officials and economic development staff have continued to talk about "diversification" but the simple fact remains that the Cape lacks the infrastructure to compete strategically for the most desired job creators - major league sports and industry, light or otherwise.

Large-scale parcels are scarce, we have no airport, harbor, or an I-75 interchange. We don't even have utilities where needed north of Pine Island Road.

We point out that construction jobs and those related to the industry are also skilled and professional positions.

Is that not what everyone agrees defines economic development?

Let 2013 be the year council takes a strong stand for economic development of the type that can most readily be achieved. Re-evaluate the near $20,000 "tax" and impact fees across the board.

Call it a business incentive and help put residents back to work.

Don't neglect

the South Cape

With the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency facing a funding shortage that council feared would leave projects undone, the city absorbed the responsibility of the agency created to mitigate and prevent blight in the Cape's oldest business district.

City council assumed the duties of the board of directors. The city manager took over the administrative role.

The changeover is still in the transition phase although some suggestions concerning projects - or their postponement - have been put on the table.

Ideas that have merit include establishing an advisory panel made up downtown business owners.

The idea makes sense for a couple of reasons.

One, the CRA is funded though taxes paid by property owners within the district. This "tax increment financing" structure provides that property taxes collected over the base amount established at the district's inception go into a fund to pay for improvements within the district.

When property values were up, there was money enough in the kitty.

When property values plummeted, there was little above the base amount, hence the lack of ready cash to fund projects.

Still, we agree, these property owners should have a voice in how any money is to be spent.

The formation of a an advisory panel or committee also brings the agency closer to its neighborhood roots. While council would - and should - have final say, it would have information from the "feet on the street" and those with a vested interest in making things work.

Form the committee in 2013.

Build it and

they will come

If history tells us anything, the lull in controversy in 2012 is not likely to carry over into the new year when the assessments for the utility expansion plan go out to property owners in the neighborhoods dubbed Southwest 6 & 7

While the amount has yet to be determined, in 2009 the tally was around $20,000 per standard building site- $10,792 in assessments to pay for pipes and other infrastructure, plus another $6,750 in impact fees. Homeowners converting from well and septic also faced additional costs for hookup and septic tank removal.

Even if the new numbers are a tad lower, the bill is likely to cause some angst, especially as property values aren't likely to jump by a like amount, at least not immediately as they did in the boom time when people still vigorously protested the assessments -and so got the expansion into the remaining neighborhoods in the southwest Cape postponed.

Last year at this time we called for some decisive action concerning the UEP.

Cape Coral City Council did move forward.

The board earmarked up to $7.68 million for engineering services to expand water, sewer and irrigation utilities in Southwest 6 & 7.

In addition to the not-to-exceed amount of $7,679,332 for plan adoption and review, value engineering, and other services to include construction management, council also authorized a contingency of 5 percent, or $383,966.

The city also hired a project manager this month.

But council did little to address the issues at the heart of the debate: Assessment methodology and whether, at least for the neighborhoods north of Pine Island Road, there is a better way of extending public utilities than the assessment-impact fee method under which the bulk of the project has painfully moved forward.

We, as a city, know the old arguments did little to appease.

People demanded change.

They were promised it.

But it is still lacking.

Trot out the same-old, same-old and history will repeat itself: Unhappy homeowners by the score will storm city hall with tearful tales of economic ruination, T-shirts and protest signs.

And we will be a city divided

Again.

We believe this council can do much better than that.

The task ahead is a tough one and one at which their predecessors failed.

Council and staff must build confidence in the construction process and its costs and then make the payment process as painless as possible for those in Southwest 6 & 7.

Council then must look down the road to the next phases with an eye on equitable methodology; whether to continue with construction processes that include extremely expensive road re-building; and possible new methods of financing in lieu of blank-check assessments.

Options used elsewhere include the establishment of special taxing districts to pay for infrastructure improvements and/or a compensatory rate structure similar to that used by the private sector, which has no authority to assess.

Most property owners agree a citywide system is the best way to go.

They just don't want to pay more than they have to.

Make sure that they won't.

To 2013.

May it be a year for continued economic recovery, and for better times ahead.

Happy New Year. May it be all you want it to be,

- Breeze editorial

 
 
 

 

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