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Commissioners, state legislators clash over proposals to expand Lee County’s government

By NATHAN MAYBERG - | Nov 30, 2023

Rep. Mike Giallombardo (at left) speaks with Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chair Mike Greenwell after Thursday's Lee County delegation meeting. NATHAN MAYBERG

Proposed legislation by State Rep. Mike Giallombardo (R-79) to overhaul Lee County’s system of governance with a new elected county mayor with veto power over an expanded board of county commissioners, met opposition from county commissioners during a state delegation meeting of state legislators representing Lee County Thursday morning.

Republican state legislators clashed with their Republican counterparts on the Lee County Board of County Commissioners during a meeting that filled a room in the nursing building at Florida SouthWestern State College that started bright and early at 7 a.m.

While many speakers from the public supported the concept of single-member districts, those in attendance were less enthralled by the prospect of an elected county mayor and a new elevated lever of power in county government. Some expressed concern about “cronyism” and about the bills dividing the county during a time of rebuild from Hurricane Ian.

County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass (R-District 2) has stated that an estimate by the county as to the increased cost of the new and expanded offices proposed by Giallombardo would amount to approximately $3 million. That includes the new elected offices and staff, as well as new attorneys for the county mayor and commissioners, new elections, health care, salaries and pensions.

State Sen. Jonathan Martin (R-33), questioned Pendergrass if it would “help reduce costs if the county commission was paid the same amount of money as the state legislators, approximately $29,600?”

Pendergrass said “that’s fine with me” if the state legislature put it into the referendum.

Lee County commissioners earn $114,881 annually.

Both the commission and state legislature’s salaries are set by the state. State legislator’s posts are part-time.

Giallombardo, of Cape Coral, introduced his legislation to the public assembled after applauding recent discussion between the Fort Myers Beach and Iona fire districts about potentially merging after a state bill proposed by Rep. Adam Botana (R-80) to merge the Bonita Springs, Iona and Fort Myers Beach fire district.

“These things can be resolved. If you want to resolve it and you want to fight it, we have the votes,” Giallombardo said.

Lee County Commissioner Ray Sandelli (R-District 3) said he believes the county and state should be focusing on Hurricane Ian recovery.

“We’ve accomplished much, we have a lot of work to do,” Sandelli said. “Our community and our citizens deserve our best efforts and focused efforts to provide a stable, efficient delivery of services for our constituents. I think that’s what we should be working on right now. There are a lot of people hurting out there and we have made a lot of good efforts to alleviate some of that pain. All these talks about all of these other issues to me are somewhat secondary to the fact that we’ve got people that need us now for a lot of other things right now (like) insurance.”

While many liked the idea of single-member districts, others opposed the prospect of being disenfranchised. While county commissioners are currently elected by voters countywide, the new bill would create five single-member districts and two at-large districts with the potential to increase seats to as many as nine.

One Vietnam veteran from Cape Coral said “one of the things I fought for was voting for all the people. You are taking away four votes that I fought for, for 27 tears and I resent that till the day I die.”

Giallombardo said “this is the start of a process.” He said he would be engaging in workshops with county commissioners to discuss his legislation. He doesn’t expect it to be ready in time for this session. The bills, if approved, would not take effect until 2026.

“We’re all trying to make our place a better place,” Greenwell said.

He said he welcomed workshops with Giallombardo.

“As a Republican, I promised I will never increase government,” Greenwell said, noting that the proposed bills would increase government and taxes.

Despite opposition from members of the Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District and Fort Myers Beach Board of Fire Commissioners, the state delegation voted unanimously 5-0 to approve the bill merging the district with the Lee County Mosquito Control District. The bill will still need to move through three committees and both houses of the state legislature and governor’s bill. The bill would then need to be approved by a referendum of Lee County voters.

State law requires a study about the impacts of the merger as well. On Thursday, Botana said that requirement had been met by the annual state audit before saying he would check on the matter again.

The Fort Myers Beach Council had voted to oppose the merger and asked Mayor Dan Allers to appear in front of the state delegation to voice opposition at the delegation’s last meeting in October. While Allers briefly made reference to meetings he had with state legislators in October, he did not directly comment on them at the meeting. On Thursday, Allers was also present during the discussion on the district merger along with Fort Myers Beach Manager Andy Hyatt and Operations Manager Frank Kropacek, but did not comment.

Voting to approve the mosquito control district merger were Martin, whose district includes Fort Myers Beach; Botana; Rep. Tiffany Esposito; Giallombardo; and Rep. Kathleen Passidomo.

Martin said he wouldn’t vote for the merging of the mosquito control districts if it raises taxes. He referenced a state audit that recommended the merging of the mosquito districts though Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District Vice Chair Steve Johnson said that was not a feasibility study.

Under the proposed merger, the Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District millage rate could more than double based on the current millage rates of the two districts. The Fort Myers Beach rate is 0.1123 per thousand dollars of assessed value, while Lee County’s rate is 109% higher.

Johnson told state legislators that their actions to involuntarily merge the mosquito district was a “forfeiture of the public trust.”

Johnson said that a referendum to merger the Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District into the Lee County Mosquito Control District should be decided by voters in the Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District, who would see increased taxes and the loss of property. The mosquito control district’s building off Lazy Way was destroyed by Hurricane Ian and the property would be turned over to the Lee County Mosquito Control District if the merger succeeded.

Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District Chair John Bennett said, “I don’t see the logic for paying more for less service.”

Fort Myers Beach Fire Commissioner Ron Fleming also spoke out against the mosquito control district merger.

“You are increasing my taxes, you are lowering my service. If you think that’s a good idea, than vote for this bill.”

Fleming asked what would become of the two acres of property at Lazy Way “that is less than 200 yards from the Gulf of Mexico?”

Fleming called the proposed merger “a disgrace.”

Passidomo said if a study showed that a merging of the mosquito control districts would raise taxes, “I can assure you the only people who will vote in favor will be the Democrats.”