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5 days ago, 06/26/2015 at 5:51am

Larry KikerKiker Discusses State of the County

Last week the Sand Paper met with Mayor Anita Cereceda to get her thoughts on the Town of Fort Myers Beach’s strengths and challenges. This week we sat down with Larry Kiker, District Three Lee County Commissioner and former Mayor of Fort Myers Beach to discuss his thoughts on county projects, including his opinions and concerns about the upcoming Estero Boulevard Reconstruction project, the recent purchases of land in the downtown area and what the county is doing to prepare for a predicted period of rapid growth.

Estero Blvd

First was Estero Boulevard. The commissioner confirmed that the County is waiting for the Town to break ground on the waterline replacement project first.

"At least for the first segment of the project, we are asking the Town to go first with replacing the water line because they can only do 60 feet/day whereas we can do 200 feet/day,” Kiker said. "For the other segments, we are currently having a discussion on whether or not the county should take over the waterline replacement – just on Estero – because it would save both the Town and the County money to do everything at the same exact time.”

Kiker said the Construction Manager hired for the project - Chris-Tel –will be doing all segments of the project, which is expected to take up to a total of 10 years using a 'design and construction' approach - where one year a section is constructed, the next year the following section is designed then that section is constructed, and so on.

"It should appear seamless once the project gets going and we have the funding to see the project through,” he said. "There may be some interruptions due to seasonal traffic, turtles and storms or some other thing we need to react to, but otherwise the plan is forge ahead until it’s complete.”

Seafarers & Crescent Family Park

When we asked Commissioner Kiker if the County is considering selling Seafarer’s or Crescent Beach Family Park to the potential downtown developers, he said everything is on the table until the county and the town figures out the best thing to do.

"This keeps changing because they (developers) keep buying more properties,” he said. "There are different phases to this; one is zoning and permitting, and that will be handled by the Town. The other is the equity position that the county holds – in order for them to complete a project they may need to make land swaps to improve their development situation and/or infrastructure. Our primary focus would be to alleviate the traffic problem and address the parking situation – this is something we’re working with both the developer and the state of Florida on (the state owns the Matanzas Pass Bridge and Estero Boulevard to the traffic light at Time Square).”

Kiker finished by saying the potential developer seems very amenable to working with the county and the Town.

"Some of the improvements they are talking about may benefit the whole island,” he said.

Shifting gears, we asked if there is anything Kiker is concerned about – as a commercial property and homeowner on Fort Myers Beach. He said he has some concern regarding Council’s recent decision to set the tentative millage (property tax) rate at 1.0607 mils.

"I’m deeply concerned with that because it’s a 50% increase which I think is a lot,” he said. "They would get a 6% increase if they just left it the same because property values have gone up. I really hope they will think this through and pull the tax rate back within reason.”

County Budget

Moving on to County issues, Kiker reported that there was a 38% increase in Tourist Development Council (TDC) bed tax funds last year alone, and the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) plans to look at how that money will be allocated.

"The money is allocated by percentage and category,”he said. "Now that’s changed because there’s so much extra money. Since that money can only go to things that can be funded by the TDC (i.e., not roads) we have to be real careful on what we want to do with it and/or save it for because if we want to use it or save it for something else, now is the time to do it. Evidence of that is an extra $11 million in TDC reserves alone.”

The commissioner told us he is optimistic about the county’s future for several reasons, the biggest of which is Lee’s financial position.

"All the municipalities set their own impact fees - for example, on Fort Myers Beach only 2 construction projects out of 22 would have qualified to have to pay (impact fees) – the rest would not,” he said. "We put in a growth increment funding mechanism for all of Lee County that works by identifying all real estate transactions in a prior year that resulted in a change in taxable value. If the proposal had been applied this fiscal year, it would have generated $7.8 million in county revenue to be added to the following year's budget.”

Kiker said that the county has also completely reformatted its budget process.

"The first year I sat on the BoCC, we had a huge deficit and we were spending out of our reserves,” he said. "We now have a policy-driven budget, which allows us to give County Staff specific direction, they return with projects and programs and funding options. We as elected officials never work directly with staff, per our charter. We also decreased our debt by $60 million last year and increased our reserve capacity to $72 million, which is to be used for emergencies only.”

The commissioner says that this has put the county in a position to move forward on projects that have been waiting in the wings for years.

"This will be the year that things start happening –road projects, water projects, bike paths, sidewalks, et cetera,” he said. "Now that we’ve reorganized financially, it’s time to get to work. We’d also like to gradually decrease the tax rate. And we are continuing to work on the Conservation 20/20 program as it will go back to the voters next year via a referendum on the presidential ballot.”

Six County Summit

The other thing that Kiker believes will greatly help the county is the new 6-County Summit set up this past year by he and County Manager Roger Desjarlais - where he and Kiker regularly attend meetings with representatives from six counties in Southwest Florida.

"This is going to help us establish a leadership position by creating a ‘Super Region’ - which represents up to 2 million people - that will give us more clout in Tallahassee and D.C.,” he said. "We may even be adding a couple more counties. This whole thing gravitates toward creating relationships where we meet and have conversations about what each county wants and how we can work together to make that happen –what one county can’t do, maybe another one can. We’ve made remarkable progress in just the four meetings we’ve had.”

So far, Kiker says, the group’s main focuses are on flood insurance on the federal level, water quality/water projects on the state level and economic development.

"This job has been exactly what I thought it was going to be,”he said. "It was great working on Council and being Mayor for 5 years and this just enhances the opportunity to make this community better. I enjoy the conversations and emails from residents, and I look forward to working with the Town Council as these are very important years for the Town of Fort Myers Beach.”

Keri Hendry Weeg