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Bid to sunset Budget Review Committee fails

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | May 26, 2023

The city of Cape Coral’s volunteer Budget Review Committee got a reprieve Wednesday when City Council deadlocked on a motion to disband it.

Councilmembers Tom Hayden, Bill Steinke, Jessica Cosden and Robert Welsh voted against the move to repeal the resolution that established the council-appointed citizen advisory panel in 2015.

Mayor John Gunter said his goal is to get more budgetary information out to the community, as well as garner more participation.

“What we are saying is we don’t agree with how the (existing) resolution is written and how the budget review committee is performing their work. We think there is a different way, or better way possibly. That doesn’t say we can’t come back and come up with a different plan,” he said.

Councilmember Dan Sheppard said he believes the city’s various advisory groups, in the past, were an important tool. With the implementation of new technology, though, the public now has the opportunity to receive emails when topics are discussed and they can provide their opinion directly to Council.

“Technology has changed and this council has learned how to reach out and get more people involved than the (BRC) board,” Sheppard said. “More people can be involved.”

In addition, it would be more valuable for city staff to spend time with individual council members, Sheppard said, adding residents are not contacting the BRC to ask questions, but rather their elected council members.

“I wouldn’t want to waste money and time and staff, educating a very small amount of people,” he said of staff time spent with the BRC. “I might not be 100 percent correct. I am giving you my views. When it comes to the budget, I want more time spent with me so I can be educated on the budget. You don’t have to stop your work at all. The city is still going to give you all the information you need and you can meet with any particular council person.”

There were arguments on both sides, with some council members wanting to disband the Budget Review Committee, while others thought it important to keep.

One suggestion was to hold a forum or town hall so a more citizens could be educated on the budget, allowing for a better use of staff time.

Steinke suggested a compromise along those lines.

“A forum presentation is the right way to go to get the greatest number of people to see the presentation. That large group then hears that presentation and would contain the members of the Budget Review Committee,” Steinke said. “There needs to be a change to the wording in the resolution and what the responsibilities are — meeting requirements to match the process of attending the budget review forum and then providing comment to the council after their opportunity to convene and share feelings and perspectives to develop a recommendation to council.”

On the other side, some argued council members should be the ones who comprise the Budget Review Committee.

“We all have our opinions. Opinions can lead to misinformation and lead to more problems. We want to know the numbers are coming from accurate information,” Cummings said. “There is a lot of information coming through emails of numbers that are not accurate.”

She said with more than 100 people in the finance department and an audit team, time should be spent every month teaching Council where the money is going and what they do have.

“When we have these committees (they) are taking up our Finance Department time (and there is) not a lot of time for us,” Cummings said. “I want to hold myself accountable and make sure I understand the budget. I am not trying to be selfish. I want to learn. I want to learn what I am voting on. We are the ones voting where the money is going for these projects. I don’t want to be ignorant on a subject matter that I am not understanding.”

Hayden was very much in favor of keeping the Budget Review Committee, as well as others that are coming before Council on June 7 for possible elimination.

Those other boards that could be repealed and deleted include the Golf Course Advisory Board, Nuisance Abatement Board, Waterway Advisory Board, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, Cape Competes Advisory Board, as well as a change for the Youth Council from an advisory board to a fact-finding board, exempting it from Sunshine Law requirements.

“One of the most important responsibilities we have when elected is to listen to citizens. It’s a direct connection we have with these committees,” he said, adding that when council members say the Budget Review Committee is a waste of time, it “puzzles me, bothers me and disappoints me.”

Disbanding committees would segregate government away from people and is letting down the very framework of the government, Hayden said.