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."