Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Thinking Outside of the Box

By Marty Block, Executive Director of the PGCCC

The feasibility study for an aquarium built on a portion of the long-empty City Marketplace site has been released, and the results were far from encouraging. Projections as originally conceived were that the aquarium would attract between 134,000 and 340,000 persons, at $15 each, against construction and start-up costs in excess of $30 million.

Given that key player Mote Marine of Sarasota has walked away from the project, it has been suggested the construction costs could be lowered by reducing the size of the facility by 50 percent and raising the admission price by 20 percent, hoping that the project may eventually break even. Cutting the size of the aquarium, while increasing prices, is comparable with a restaurant cutting portions in half while simultaneously increasing prices by 20 percent in the vain hope of increasing the number of dinners it serves.

The City of Punta Gorda and Charlotte County have not been immune from charging off on projects that don’t quite achieve their goal. Witness Herald Court Centre, Punta Gorda’s parking garage, a multiuse structure whose long-empty commercial space underscores the theory that government should remain out of the rental business. Let’s not even begin to discuss the Murdock Village debacle, courtesy of prior Charlotte County Boards of Commissioners.

The history of the long-vacant, privately held, City Marketplace site falls into a category unto itself. Another mistake will not serve the interests of the City of Punta Gorda. It is critical that all of the players move forward with caution, and that common sense be the rule. Does cutting away a swath of the City Marketplace site for such a project make sense? Is there a higher use that a private developer might find for the entire site?

In 2014 the Florida Legislature will again debate changes in the law that will permit the construction of casino-hotels. I am not advocating one way or the other in favor of a casino-hotel being erected on the entire City Marketplace site, nor do I know if the site is physically capable of such a development, but there are reasons why such a possibility might at least be explored.

The City Marketplace site is unique in its proximity to downtown, I-75, U.S. 41 and U.S. 17. It is located not quite midway between the two nearest casinos, in Immokalee and Tampa. As a commercial venture, casinos provide substantial employment, create a demand for hotel rooms and restaurant seats, and bring sizable revenue into a community.

There are substantial negatives to such an idea which may far outweigh any potential benefits. While kick-starting major commercial expansion in Punta Gorda’s downtown, a casino-hotel might change the nature of the downtown in ways that many residents may not find desirable. A casinohotel would require a height exemption under the Punta Gorda Land Development Regulations, something Punta Gorda’s City Council has often been reluctant to grant. It would increase local traffic and make restaurant reservations and parking more difficult to obtain. Some might argue that it would bring an undesirable element into the downtown that would ultimately flow into the surrounding neighborhoods and communities.

A casino hotel may very well not be a viable solution to the ugly gash in the middle of Punta Gorda’s otherwise lovely downtown. In fact, it may be best that it be avoided like the plague. However the concept shows that thinking outside of the box can often produce options worth exploring, beyond a second-rate aquarium that would be hard-pressed to compete with the superb Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

(First published in the Charlotte Sun, February 15, 2014)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Punta Gorda City Budget Process for 2015 will start soon.  It's crucial for us the citizens of Punta Gorda to pay attention to the assumptions, plans, and discussions that ultimately result in what we will end up paying for in  taxes. The Long Range Financial Plan which will drive the Budget for 2015 is now available on the City's website.  It is now the time to start taking a look at the assumptions and alteratives that will be the basis of the first major discussion concerning  the budget that will take place at the February 5the Punta Gorda City Council Meeting.  The Plan can be viewed at

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Step up to the Plate Punta Gorda Citizens -- City Council is Calling You

How often have you said, “My City taxes are too high,” or “Things are not progressing fast enough" or “The street my house is on hasn’t been repaved in five years and is a mess”?

It is the essence of a democracy that every citizen has the right to complain, whether they are right or wrong. But also at the core of every democracy is the right of a citizen to do more than merely complain. Every qualified citizen has the absolute right to become a candidate for elected office, whether it is for their city council, their county commission, or the presidency of the United States.

Government and Citizens suffer whenever there is a lack interest amongst the citizenry in becoming candidates for elected office, such as on the Punta Gorda City Council, as has so often been the case in recent years, with most of the recent Council seats being filled by candidates who were unopposed and therefore didn't need to run in an election. Uncontested offices are not a healthy condition for any city, because they betray a citizenry as being disinterested in the well-being of their city and unwilling to serve as a part of its leadership.  Uncontested elections (actually no elections) also take away an opportunity.  Elections allow us to engage not just about candidates, but about issues in a meaningful way.  We become more informed and aware of what is going on and get more involved in the process of running  our city, county, or state in a way that during "normal" non-election time we do not.

Punta Gorda is fortunate to have a great many citizens who are extremely well-educated, successful in life, and who certainly are more than qualified to fill positions as City Council Members. To qualify for candidacy, you must reside within the district you wish to represent for six months prior to the election and throughout the term, must be a qualified elector of the City, and shall hold no other compensated public office other than as a notary public or member of the National Guard or Armed Forces Reserve. City elections are held in November of each year. The term of service on City Council is for two years. Punta Gorda is comprised of five individual districts. Districts 1, 2 and 4 are elected in even numbered years and Districts 3 and 5 are elected in odd numbered years. This year’s City Council elections are for positions in Districts 3 and 5.

Qualifying for candidacy occurs in June of each year, and requires a petition signed by at least 25, but not more than 50 registered voters residing within the district the candidate is seeking to represent. Various forms required by the State of Florida must also be completed and submitted. A candidate’s packet, including these forms and petition, is provided to any interested person, at the City Clerk's Office.

Once qualified as a candidate, all Federal, State and Local election laws must be adhered to. Should three or more candidates file for any one district seat, a primary election is held in August, nine weeks prior to the general election. The two candidates from each district with the largest vote total in the primary election advance to the general election, which is held in November.

The Punta Gorda Concerned Citizens Committee cannot over-emphasize the importance of the citizenry stepping up to the plate and agreeing to serve their city. It matters not which political party you might belong to, because elections for City Council are apolitical in nature. What matters is that you believe enough in the future of the City of Punta Gorda to become a candidate for City Council, and believe in your heart that you can help preserve the wonderful quality of life the people of Punta Gorda enjoy, while helping to build an even better city.

For further information contact the City Clerk’s Office at (941) 575-3369 or via E-mail at

by Marty Block, Punta Gorda Concerned Citizens

Monday, September 3, 2012

Important Public Hearing Wednesday on Punta Gorda City Budget and Millage Rates

There will be a public hearing this coming Wednesday at 5 p.m. in City Council Chambers on adoption of the tenative millage rate and budget for the City of Punta gorda for the 2013 Fiscal Year.

The City's Budget represents a 2% increase in the General Fund attributed by the City Manager Howard Kunik to a continued decline in property values and the inability to continue to use reserves to fill in the gap. The millage increase is an approximately 18% increase over the the 2012 rate.

These are not insignificant increases at a time when our population is straped and when our City needs to continue to attract new residents and homeowers  Concerned Punta Gorda citizens should be paying attention and speaking out and not just rubber stamping a change without question or debate.    

Monday, July 9, 2012

Letter to Punta Gorda City Council from a Concerned Citizen

The following letter was sent to members of the Punta Gorda City Council today by a member of the PGCCC on behalf of the members: 

Honorable Members of the City Council:

There will be much conversation about the City’s budget over the next few days.

With the prospect of lower property values, the conversation will focus on how to make up for a budget shortfall projected to be almost a million dollars. Mayor Bill Albers says the City needs to take a hard look at the possibility of raising the millage rate, which will result in higher property taxes. The Punta Gorda Concerned Citizens Committee also desires to maintain the quality of life that people wanted when they decided to live in Punta Gorda, as Mayor Albers said recently. The mayor has also said publically he will not support taking any benefits away from municipal employees.

The City Manager, in his Weekly Highlights Report (7/6/2012), claims the upcoming fiscal year will be the forth straight year that there will be no across-the-board salary increases. I am afraid that he forgets about the $345,000 in storm reserves that were committed to a raise for the municipal employees. (See Page 7 of Finance Director Dave Drury’s “Punta Gorda’s Financial Policies” dated 1/18/2012.) It was never referred to as anything other than a “one-time salary increase.” What was ignored was that it had pension plan implications which would continue for so long as any employee receiving that one-time increase worked for the City and beyond, after their retirement.

Raising the millage rate without an exhaustive review of current City expenses would be a disservice to the residents of Punta Gorda. There are some areas in the City budget where the possibility of savings may exist, and a serious discussion of these potential savings should be conducted. To argue that raising taxes will have no impact on the quality of life for Punta Gorda’s citizens would be disingenuous.

Now that the City is putting all new General Employees onto a defined contributions plan, it is time for the City to move the existing General Employees to a defined contributions plan as well. Many municipalities are acknowledging that they have promised pensions they cannot afford, and are cutting once-sacrosanct benefits - to appease taxpayers and attack budget deficits. This would go a long way toward reducing the City’s future pension obligations. 

Crime rates for the City of Punta Gorda and nationally are at their lowest point in a decade. This is a good thing! Nonetheless, a review of current staffing levels is still in order, as well as reconsideration of the policy of assigning police vehicles to individual officers, which they take home when not on duty, frequently outside the City, and even some outside of Charlotte County, rather than the City utilizing them 16 or even 24 hours per day.

The volume of solid waste has declined 25% over the past five years - mainly because of curb-side recycling. While the volume is down dramatically, the method of collecting trash in Punta Gorda has not changed. Many residents say they are hard-pressed to have enough trash to justify the twice a week collections. The City could offer once a week collections to further reduce costs - with attendant savings to homeowners.

Many contend the City should solicit quotations to privatize the solid waste (trash) collection. There could be substantial savings if collections were done by a private firm. Even should the City of Punta Gorda continue to provide solid waste collections, it should explore new more efficient work methods and equipment to further reduce costs to its residents. Many communities collect trash utilizing modern equipment requiring only one person to both maneuver the right-hand drive vehicle and collect the trash. No special trash containers are needed, and no critical positioning of waste containers is required.

Water meter readings in Punta Gorda are presently done monthly, whereas in many municipalities water meters are read quarterly and monthly bills are based on recent water usage history. Following the next quarterly reading, an adjusted bill will reconcile the account. There is little affect on cash flow, but a real savings in employee costs attendant to reading the meters each and every month.

Code Compliance is another department that should be scrutinized. The deed-restricted communities in Punta Gorda have (or should have) a community standards person or committee as part of their homeowner associations. This function is charged with the responsibility to observe and report violations to their board and to the City for corrective action. It seems repetitious to have City employees riding around in City vehicles to patrol and observe violations related to private property covered by protective covenants, even in the Special Overlay District.

There is little doubt that the City Manager and the current City Council’s primary solution to the deficit in the budget is to raise the millage substantially. For them, this certainly is the easiest and pain free way for them to operate. This budget deficit was projected in the last several Long Range Financial Plans, which appear to have been totally ignored by the City Council and City Manager, as they continued to pile expense upon expense, rather than address the obvious



Ralph R. Gaudette, Member
Punta Gorda Concerned Citizens Committee.

Attachments: Photos of efficient trash collection vehicles.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Punta Gorda's Budget Shortfall and Proposed Tax Hike

Yesterday's headline in the Charlotte Sun announcing that the City government was aiming to introduce an 18.2% tax hike reverberated with members of the PGCCC. The article noted that to fill in a $1.1 million hole in its proposed $18.3 million 2013 budget, the City Council agreed by consensus Tuesday to hike the city’s property tax rate by 18.2 percent. This kind of news is not only discouraging to those of us who would pay the higher tax rate, it's very bad publicity for Punta Gorda at a time when the housing market is showing some signs of improvement here. Our City Council should consider that potential new residents aren't looking to relocate in a town that increases taxes by 18.2% in one year.

Last Spring when the City first brought up the issues with the upcoming budget, the PGCCC warned of the foreshadowed tax to come and recommended action on serious cost reductions. Below is a letter published in the Sun in May written by PGCCCmember, Frank Mazur:

"Our economy is growing at a dismal rate and the Congressional Budget Office says the recovery is the worse since the depression. The Punta Gorda poverty rate is near 10%; higher in the county. One third of our residents earn less than $25,000 and 56 percent are over 60 years old. Residents are squeezed and inflation is under 3 percent. If you look at a typical person’s every day consumption the inflation rate is closer to 8-10 percent.  

Our national debt doesn’t include Social Security and Medicare obligations or pensions for federal, state and local workers of $4.4 trillion or $11.4 trillion we owe in home mortgages, credit cards, auto and student loans. Added up we owe $261,000 per capita and our annual per capita income is $27,000.

Our community hasn’t had economic growth and that has impacted property values and city revenues. Many residents are on fixed incomes which have been sluggish because of depressed interest rates and rare social security increases that are eaten up by higher medical costs.  

Though City spending has gone up since 2005 in excess of inflation, the population is flat. Yet with a budget shortfall of $1.7M the city officials are opting for a tax rate increase to sustain city spending.

Residents are being harmed by the enormous growth of our Federal government and are now exposed to a city tax rate increase. There’s never enough money for government and growing it slowly won’t make things better.  

We’ve been unsuccessful in cutting Federal spending. The city must live within its means; a tax isn’t free money."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Collective Bargaining Should Not Apply to Public Service

Posted by Martin H Block, Ph.D.June 15, 2012 

 As cities, counties, and states across the country continue to face mounting budget deficits, disputes between government unions and the populations they serve are becoming a significant issue, as local and state governments are forced to face the realities that are the outgrowth of unionization of government employees.  Work stoppages and slowdowns by teachers and other non-public safety government employees are an indication of what some cities and counties have faced, or may be facing among their union and non-union employees.  The recent recall election results in the State of Wisconsin, as well as the results of the votes in San Diego and San Jose, California, the 8th and 10th largest cities in the United States, certainly point to a strong public sentiment to reign in some of the costs associated with unionized public employees.   

No less a Progressive icon than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt foresaw the inherent problem with letting government employees unionize, writing in 1937: “All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. … The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.”  This warning applies at all levels of government.

Unlike the private sector, governments have no competitors.  When a union reaches a contract with a private firm that grossly increases costs, that firm loses out to competitors. When a union extracts a generous contract from government, there is no check on that spending.   Instead of being disciplined by more efficient competitors, the government most often pays for higher spending with service cutbacks, higher taxes, or borrowing. 

Government unions gained the upper hand through generous political donations and collective bargaining backed up with the threat of work stoppages and strikes; but states, counties, and municipalities across the USA are now facing $2.8 trillion worth of deficits in pension and benefits liabilities.  The City of Punta Gorda is included within that group.