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A passing of the baton

By Staff | Aug 6, 2020

As voters look to fill four of eight Cape Coral Council seats this fall, another changing of the guard is under way at City Hall.

John Szerlag, the city’s top administrator, will wrap up his last day Tuesday as per his announced retirement and a Council-approved end date.

We wish Mr. Szerlag well.

While there are some things with which we have disagreed — a few quite vehemently — we’ll not rehash those issues here. Instead, we will give credit where credit is well due: As city manager, Mr. Szerlag restored professionalism to the position and brought stability to a city that was at the epicenter of the housing collapse and the economic challenges that followed the implosion.

That was no small task and for this, we thank him for his efforts.

We thank him as well for his rallying of what had become a disoriented and discouraged troop of employees who not only felt the impact of the housing bust via furloughs, layoffs and contract concessions but the kind of political climate to which, perhaps, only those of us in the “fake media” can relate.

How bad was it when Mr. Szerlag was hired in 2012?

Due to the plumet in property tax revenue when the bottom fell out and foreclosures inhaled the real estate boom-inflated home valuations and then some, he was faced with the prospect of the city not being able to meet its bare-bones payroll in two years nor was it going to be able to restart its postponed capital projects or even deferred and sorely needed maintenance projects.

So thank you again, Mr. Szerlag, for not only setting the pace but clearing some high hurdles until our economy began to recover.

Among his accomplishments Mr. Szerlag lists the establishment of a rolling three-year operating budget to allow Council to better plan for multi-year projects. He also cites the city’s incorporation of a new three-pronged “revenue model” to ease its heavy reliance on property taxes which Mr. Szerlag says fostered economic sustainability.

For those looking for a visual legacy, under his tenure as city manager Cape Coral voters agreed in 2018 to tax ourselves a little more over the next 15 years to fund a $60 million Park Master Plan. Now under way, that plan will provide improvements to 19 existing parks and add seven new neighborhood parks, three new community parks and an environmental park in sensitive wetlands.

Cape residents are expected to be able to enjoy all of these improvements by the end of 2022.

Meanwhile, the city restarted its recession-derailed Utility Expansion Plan, adding a $400 million component to bring water, sewer and reclaimed water for irrigation services to the north Cape. It is one of the largest underground utility expansion projects in the U.S.

These accomplishments do not mean the next administration has no challenges waiting.

Although Cape Coral will mark its 50th anniversary as a city this month, we are not yet at the halfway mark to the city we will become — one of the state’s major municipalities in more than simply land mass. Cape Coral is expected to be home to an estimated 414,000 residents by 2080, its anticipated “buildout” year.

A concluding cap of Mr. Szerlag’s tenure is a citywide overhaul of the city’s Land Development Code, Comprehensive Plan, and its Future Land Use Map.

Approved by the Cape Coral City Council last year, the comprehensive update is intended to bring zoning into conformity with designated land use, a major source of controversy in the past. Nearly 10,000 acres were rezoned with some zoning districts eliminated and others “simplified.” The hoped-for end result is that the revamp will become an on-ramp, leading to much-needed economic and residential diversity while still protecting the Cape’s intrinsic character, built, literally, on single-family neighborhoods that, thus far, have attracted nearly 200,000 mostly very happy homeowners.

And therein lies the challenge to be faced by the Cape’s incoming city manager Rob Hernandez, to whom the administrative baton will pass on Wednesday.

We wish him well in advance.

And we wish him every success as he sets his foot on the track and his eye on the horizon.

–Breeze editorial