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Oasis supporters dominate first Cape budget hearing

September 6, 2018
By CHUCK?BALLARO ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

The Cape Coral City Council on Thursday agreed to set the tentative millage and budget for the 2019 fiscal year at the first public hearing of the budget at City Hall.

But not before a slew of students, parents and supporters came before the dais to speak in support for the Cape Coral Charter School System, especially Oasis High School, which a city committee has recommended be shut down.

More than 45 minutes were devoted to thanking the city council for its support while pleading with officials to continue to do so and make sure they keep the high school open, as it is a great amenity for the community.

"Every year I've had great time learning everything I need to know and more. Since kindergarten I have hoped to go to Oasis High School and graduate in 2023. I'm glad council is doing what it can to stay open and continue to do so," said Eric Feichthaler Jr. city charter school system eighth-grader.

His father, former mayor Eric Sr., had a tough act to follow, said Mayor Joe Coviello.

As did many of the other parents who spoke.

They all tried anyway.

Supporters talked about all the things being done at the high school with a new principal and a much-improved football team. They also addressed what has happened with all the students who attended, and the need to keep the system K-12 to maintain the consistency the small municipal system brings.

The Budget Review Committee recommended during budget workshops that the high school be turned into a K-8 school to accommodate the backlog of students in that grade area wishing to attend school there.

The high school, which has had enrollment issues, is currently about 50 students short of capacity.

Council members assured parents they would do all they could to support the schools, but supporters needed to understand there are issues, especially when it comes to funding and sustainability.

"We know the charter school system is among the best in the state," Councilmember Rick Williams said. "The problem is keeping it sustainable. We're not looking at closing the school. I wouldn't vote to close any schools."

Councilmember Marilyn Stout, who served on the Charter School Authority for nine years, said it was easy to live up to the promises it made.

"Retention rate for teachers and students was over 90 percent because it worked as a family," Stout said. "A few years ago, the retention rate at the high school, it was 44 percent. (Superintendent) Jacquelin Collins has done a great job bringing things back. I want to continue to support the charter schools; I do not believe the subsidies were necessary the last two years."

Stout said she would not support the subsidization of the charter schools, especially if the Lee County School System loses its suit against the legislature regarding subsidizing charter schools.

"We're not looking at the rhetoric, we're looking at the numbers," Councilmember Jennifer Nelson said. "Let's see how the next eight months go and see what the best practices report in January says."

Williams said many are worried about having to pay educational costs twice, in county taxes and to the city.

In two resolutions, the tentative not-to-exceed millage was set at 6.75 mills, the same as it has been the previous two years, while the general fund budget was set at $211.6 million.

The millage rate vote was 7-1 with Councilmember John Gunter dissenting.

The general fund budget resolution passed 8-0.

Along with the millage and budget numbers, City Manager John Szerlag presented the funding core of the proposed General Fund budget; a 62 percent cost-of-operations fire service assessment (FSA) and a public service tax (PST) on electric bills of 7 percent, the current rate.

Szerlag's budget continues to use his "three-legged stool" approach to revenue diversification. The ad valorem taxes are expected to raise $92.7 million, still the lion's share of the budget. The FSA is expected to bring in $26.1 million and the PST will bring in $7.3 million.

One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of taxable valuation. The "rollback rate" is the rate at which the same amount of revenue would be raised from property taxes.

Due to an 8.49 percent increase in overall taxable property valuation, the 6.75 mill rate will result in an estimated $4.3 million more in revenue.

Williams asked if FEMA reimbursed the city for Hurricane Irma damages, what would happen.

Szerlag said he didn't know when the money would come, and didn't anticipate it coming. He said it can be found money "but only can be found once."

The storm cost the city $19 million.

Also to be considered is the referendum to increase the Save Our Homes homestead in November, which Szerlag said could cost the city another $4 million if approved.

Gunter suggested a quarter-mill decrease with the possibility of all the new money potentially coming.

Szerlag said any mill reduction would come from reserves, which would lower the level of service down the line and be unsustainable.

The quarter-mill decrease would reduce reserves to 2.43 months in 2019, 2.12 in 2020 , and 1.58 in 2021. City management mandates at least two months in reserves as any less could impact borrowing rates.

The second public hearing for the budget will be Thursday, Sept. 20, at 5:05 p.m. in Council Chambers, when the millage and budget will be approved.

City Hall is at 1015 Cultural Park Blvd.



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