Opinion: Satellite Beach City Council Sets Example Worth Following

By  //  October 1, 2012

BREVARD COUNTY • SATELLITE BEACH, FLORIDA – In just under a year the newly elected Satellite Beach City Council has made some dramatic changes to the city and none of them have resulted in the gloom and doom scenarios the “establishment” candidates warned of in their campaigns.

In fact, the results they have achieved are nothing short of miraculous. Columnist Matt Reed, a Satellite Beach resident, has even gone so far as to use the City as an example for Washington, D.C. to follow.

For those unaware, Satellite Beach elected two new fiscally conservative Council Members – Gregg Billman and Sheryl Denan – in the 2011 elections. They joined sitting Council Member and fiscal conservative Scott Rhodes to create a 3-2 majority on Council. Councilman Bill Higginson then passed away on May 8, and Council appointed citizen watchdog Lloyd French, who was the first to expose the Community Redevelopment Agency mismanagement issues, on May 11.

The appointment of French caused quite a stir, with opponents of the move alleging “cronyism” and “political payback” on the part of the newly elected Council members. Councilman Gregg Billman said he saw him as a logical choice because of his consistent participation at Council meetings and the in depth knowledge of the city’s finances he had acquired during his research of the CRA issue.

With the addition of French, long time City Manager Michael Crotty presumably saw the writing on the wall and announced his retirement in June. The council appointed Ayn Samuelson as Interim City Manager and moved swiftly to address a litany of problems.

Among them:

•  The highest tax rate in the county, until 2011 when Palm Bay exceeded Satellite Beach for that dubious distinction.
• Long term debt of $9.3 million, with debt service of more than $1 million per year.
• Unfunded retirement liabilities of $6.34 million, putting employees’ pensions at risk.
• Post-employment benefits debt of $1.1 million.
• Depleted reserve funds.
• Addressing the Community Redevelopment Agency’s liability to the state for misuse of funds (CRA funds were used to pay for police and fire expenses under prior Councils – something expressly forbidden by state law).

In the last 10 months the new council has:

• Decreased the property tax rate by 2 percent – that’s a REAL decrease, not the “Roll Back” double speak allowed by the state.

• Decreased departmental budgets by 7.1 percent via efficiencies identified in the combined citizen-staff Citizens’ Advisory Panel for Efficient Government (CAPEG) effort created by council in February of 2012 and run by Lloyd French.

• Maintained services at prior year levels.

• Avoided layoffs. All personnel efficiencies are being accomplished via attrition.

• Increased money allocated for CRA debt service to pay back CRA more quickly for mismanagement of funds from prior years.

•  Increased the City’s depleted Reserve Fund by 2,111 percent to around $150,000 compared to last year.

• Resolved CRA funds mismanagement problem via establishment of new procedures/plans in coordination with the state.

 Increased transparency and accountability at City Hall and City Departments.

•  Encouraged citizen participation by creating new committees and panels like CAPEG.

Now, as we head into the November elections, two of the sitting council members are up for re-election. Councilman Scott Rhodes and Councilman Lloyd French are running to retain their seats. While the sitting Council’s results are hard to find fault with, their opponents are leveling the same charges used in the 2011 election cycle.

Candidate Lorraine Gott stated the following in the latest issue of the Satellite Beach Beachcaster, “While some changes are necessary to deal with economic realities caused by the struggling economy, I believe that tearing the place apart is not the solution.”

Likewise, former Councilman Mark Brimer, who lost his seat in 2011, says his priorities will be, “Ensuring City services remain viable and effective and that we have the essential resources to meet resident needs,” and encouraging participation because “city government must encourage citizen participation in order to ensure a promising heritage for future generations.”

All of these statements fly in the face of reality – the facts are services are unaffected and intact, taxes are down, reserves are up, and citizen participation has never been greater.

Will voters cast their votes based on facts or rhetoric? We’ll find out on Nov. 6.