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22 hours ago

Anita CerecedaMayor Cereceda Shares Her Vision for Town

The Mayor of Fort Myers Beach is frequently called upon to speak to local groups on specific local issues or often, just offer a "State of Town Hall” report. It’s a sign of responsive government and politics -- keeping in touch with the voters, keeping them informed and listening to their concerns. Such has been the case with Mayor Anita Cereceda.

At a recent presentation at a Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce Membership luncheon, Mayor Cereceda shared her vision of what she called "The Big Picture” of Fort Myers Beach’s future. Following up on that presentation, The Sand Paper recently caught up with the Mayor and Maureen Rischitelli, Director of Administration Services, to learn more about this vision.

Most remarkable in the Mayor’s recent comments were those suggesting raising the Millage Rate on Ad Valorem taxes to their 1996 level in order to fund town government more adequately. The Town of Fort Myers Beach was incorporated on December 31, 1995.

To begin, the Mayor repeated this Vision is hers, and does not have Town Council support or vote at this point. She explained that this entire subject will come under the normal annual budget planning and approval process. The Mayor explained that her vision for the Town has come from her "change of perception as a result of getting older.” Something that, she suggested with a twinkle in her eye, might be said to mirror the aging and maturity of the Town of Fort Myers Beach.

Cereceda has a unique perspective as a native of Fort Myers Beach, operator of two businesses in Time Square and serving as the first Mayor of FMB in 1996. As a younger person, she admits to not worrying about the future.

"If I made a dollar, I spent a dollar, plus more with the help of Visa. I did not worry about the future. I was bulletproof and going to live forever. Today I work with advisors on my future and the future of my businesses. I have a savings and investment plan for my future.”

She suggests such is the same reality for the Town of Fort Myers Beach.

"Town Hall in 1995 was simple. There were only a couple of us. One of the missions of incorporating as a town was to provide the citizens higher levels of service at the same or lower costs of being part of Lee County. I believe we lived up to that, but in the process we did not think very far into the future, nor did we create enough savings as a town.”

Both Cereceda and Rischitelli believe today is a turning point in the evolution of the Town of Fort Myers Beach. This evolutionary shift has begun with Rischitelli reviewing every aspect of the Town’s annual budget.

"The focus is to plan more for the future, be proactive, and not just reactive, as in the past,” Rischitelli said.

This involves asking tough questions, and identifying wants versus needs, the Mayor added.

"When most citizens are asked whether they want bare bones services vs. concierge level services from their Town Hall, most will say bare bones without hesitation,” Cereceda said. "But in reality when breaking down the details, what many are actually demanding is more towards the concierge level, with the staff, technology, and higher costs that go with it.”

Both admitted that increases in Ad Valorem taxes are not the only resource for additional funding for the future. The Charter Review Committee is expected to recommend changing the current limitations on borrowing to allow prudent financing of larger capital projects. The current limitation of no debts with a longer payback than 3 years places a huge restriction on funding everything from office equipment to large capital improvement projects. Finding providers that will accommodate this restriction also reduces the Town’s ability to negotiate the best pricing on leases and purchases. Changing this Town Charter restriction could permit better planning and allocation of future funds. Most voters probably finance personal items like boats and cars over a longer period than three years, so it would make sense to allow the Town to manage debt in a similar way.

Additionally, local option sales taxes have provided communities another big source of revenue that does not come wholly from local property owners. In towns like Fort Myers Beach with a large seasonal visitor population, it is thought that this might make a big difference in funding some governmental budgets. At this time, changes in state statute restrictions on the uses of local option sales taxes are being pursued and monitored by Town Council.

So what are some of the items needing future funding? This answer begins with the study being done by Rischitelli. Any such wish list is in the early stages of development. The list begins, obviously, with the plans to purchase and remodel the current Town Hall building.

"We have to credit Town Manager, Don Stillwell, for this,” said Cereceda. ”The ability by the Town to do this deal has existed for some time, but Don had the will, initiative and perseverance to negotiate a good deal for the Town.”

Other items for future budgetary considerations include considerable hardware and software upgrades that are past due. Upgrading those will increase staff efficiency and accountability and provide better customer service for residents. The current systems have been patched together over time, and will not serve the Town’s future needs well. Time Square, viewed as a focal point for our community, is in need of some much deferred maintenance. Also, funds do not exist for lighting, landscaping or beautification of the redevelopment of Estero Blvd. Funding for the Lee County road project does not include these important additional finishing touches needed to match those done previously on North Estero Blvd completed several years ago.

Planning for the future needs of the Town and how to fund those needs is a discussion that promises to engage Town officials, staff and residents in the coming months. Watch the Island Sand Paper for updates.


Bob Layfield