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Can Bay Oaks become its own taxing district?

Member of advisory board suggests it as way to sustain troubled recreation campus

May 5, 2016
By John Morton ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Aware that the Bay Oaks Recreation Campus has been a burden on the town's budget since it took ownership of it in 2009, Dave Anderson has dropped a bombshell of an idea in suggesting it become its own independent taxing district - much like the area's fire district.

"In our six miles (the length of Estero Island, which makes up the town of Fort Myers Beach), do we have the tax base to support this?" asked Anderson, a member of the campus' advisory board, during a meeting Thursday at Town Hall. "Let the campus become self-sustaining."

And with that, town director of administrative services Maureen Rischitelli said she'd begin to research the idea - one the other board members agreed was compelling.

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"This is interesting," said Betty Simpson, the board president. "If this is allowed it's something to consider."

Staff cuts, deteriorating facilities, a lack of marketing, inconsistent programming and dwindling usage have compromised that goal in recent years.

However, Rischitelli warned the board "I'm not sure the state Legislature allows for a special district that's solely for recreational use. I've never seen one."

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If by chance it meets the criteria, such a district would increase the number of contributors to include all of those in the 33931 ZIP code, which runs well beyond the Sky Bridge to nearly Summerlin Road.

"You'd have four of five times the number of people paying into the pot, instead of having to carry it all within the island," Anderson said.

Such a designation would require a referendum vote and also an elected board of directors. Currently, Fort Myers Beach residents pay taxes to the town, the county and special districts that include the fire, the public library and mosquito control.

Would off-island residents back such a plan?

"I think you'd find support from people over the bridge," said Charlie Whitehead, a longtime Bay Oaks volunteer who's a San Carlos Island (considered unincorporated Lee County) resident and therefore not currently paying taxes to support the campus. "I have long argued the community of Fort Myers Beach is not just Estero Island."

Whitehead, who back in the 1990s was a Bay Oaks board member, said the campus was viewed as a more regional facility.

"Back then, the use was determined to be about 50/50" between town people and non-town people, he said. "But since then, other rec centers have emerged in the area so I doubt that's the case today.

"Still, it's a regional facility so it should have regional funding. I see some logic here."

Bay Oaks' budget consists of roughly $800,000, representing nearly a quarter of the property taxes collected on Estero Island. Its revenues are speculated to be about $200,000 each year, leaving a tremendous subsidy scenario.

But such is the price for running a public commodity, many board members have argued. And despite a shoddy history regarding fee collections, they want to keep a mindset that no kid should be turned away.

"The programs will never recover what they cost by themselves," said board member Rae Sprole. "But it's all about the kids. We'd rather have them in the weight room than in the woods or on the beach getting into trouble."

Added Simpson, "What rec center have you ever heard of that makes money?"

Board member Becky Bodnar noted the average return on investment for a community rec center is 26 percent - a number with which she's comfortable.

That's fine for times when the campus is already open for business and therefore staffed by necessity, Rischitelli said, but for off-campus events she is suggesting at least 56 percent if not more.

And Anderson reiterated the importance that the campus not only at least be viable but no longer an ongoing headache for the town, which has dropped its number of full-time employees from five to three and has dismissed its parks and recreation director with no plan for replacement in mind.

"We should at least be at revenue-neutral," Anderson said. "You shouldn't go into something knowing you're operating at a loss. How much is the town willing to subsidize? We're going to find ourselves being subsidized right out of business."

He estimated the length of time to pull together a potential referendum campaign as a year to a year-and-a-half.

Regarding the staffing situation, several board members continued to express disbelief that the town was using a "team approach" in lieu of having a director in the mix.

"Where's the accountability if no one is in charge?" asked member Denise Monahan.

Sprole voiced her concern of the small things falling through the cracks.

"You could have someone use the wrong pool chemical and it stings the kids' eyes, or a child could wander off," she said. "I can't imagine having no one to oversee things. We're asking an awful lot of just three people."

Rischitelli said the staffing decision belong to the town manager (Don Stilwell), and the board's concerns will be passed along.

Bay Oaks' recreation center was built by Lee County in 1986. When it was handed over to the town in 2009, a capital-improvement budget of $490,000 was part of the package, and $400,000 remains today. Among the immediate needs are a suspect roof, a dying air conditioning system, a worn-out gymnasium floor and an entryway bridge "that is crumbling," Rischitelli said.

However, none of that money is earmarked for the neighboring pool, which has no reserve fund. Meanwhile, it has had a slide closed for months due to a faulty railing, pool pumps nearing their life expectancy, and is in dire need of a new surface at an estimated cost of $100,000.

As for the pool's temperature of 75 degrees, which has been a source of complaints, Mayor Dennis Boback expressed surprise last week during the same presentation to the Town Council.

"The Health Department suggests a temperature between 82 and 86 degrees," he said.



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