Delray pension reform

Like Boca Raton, Delray Beach can’t afford the pension benefits that some police officers and firefighters may be expecting. Today could mark the start of what needs to be serious public safety pension reform in Delray.

This afternoon, before its regular meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission will meet in executive session—public not allowed—to discuss the status of negotiations with the police union, whose contract expires Sept. 30. Meeting about collective bargaining and lawsuits are exempt from the state’s open-meeting laws, but I have a fairly good idea of how things will go.

The city’s labor lawyers and administrators will review Delray Beach’s offer to the union and advise the commission on what the city needs in concessions. Examples: a later retirement age, a reduction in the annual cost-of-living increase, even a cap on benefits. The answer is: much. The city’s contribution to public safety pensions is set to increase another $1.5 million next year. As with all larger, full-service cities in Florida, Delray Beach faces a financial crisis in the next decade or so unless it controls police and fire pension costs.

Mayor Cary Glickstein will back the push for comprehensive reform. “We are going to reach a sustainable solution (on pensions),” he told me Friday, “and not one that tries to do so incrementally, as Delray has done.” In that regard, Glickstein sounds much like Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie. Boca’s offer to the police union seeks changes in all the major categories used to calculate benefits.

In addition to a pension proposal, Delray Beach also will make a wage offer to the police union. The offers are separate, but the topics are intertwined. Essentially, Delray Beach wants to focus more on paying police officers for what they do while they are working, not while they are retired. “We want to be competitive (on salaries) when it comes to attracting the best officers,” Glickstein said.

Commissioner Shelly Petrolia will agree with Glickstein. Commissioner Jordana Jarjura probably will agree, too, although she has been on the commission just since March. Commissioners Adam Frankel and Al Jacquet likely will push back. Both have stronger ties to the police and fire unions.

I think that when the commissioners finish their discussion, however, that Delray Beach’s offer will seek at least the same level of reform that Boca Raton’s offer does, and perhaps even more. Delray’s tax rate for operating is already above 7 mills -- $7 for $1,000 of assessed property value, or more than twice the rate in Boca Raton—and the Florida Constitution prohibits cities from levying a rate higher than 10 mills. Proportionally, Delray Beach remains safely under the tax limit, but uncontrolled pension costs eventually could prevent the city from raising taxes to improve actual services.

According to Chief Financial Officer Jack Warner, police and fire pension costs already make up nearly one-fourth of all the revenue Delray raises through property taxes. And property tax revenue remains nearly $8 million less than the peak in 2007.

“We are not a for-profit company,” Glickstein said. “We can’t adjust prices to make up for higher costs.” The numbers are obvious. So is the solution, if Delray Beach has the will to start paying more for public safety, not just public safety pensions.

More trash talk

On tonight’s regular Delray Beach City Commission agenda is a request to spend an additional $25,000 on preparing the city’s bid for a trash-hauling contract. Given what’s at stake, spending the money makes sense.

Delray previously had hired a consultant to write the bid proposal. After reviewing it, however, City Attorney Noel Pfeffer thought that Delray would benefit from a review by what Pfeffer calls a “solid waste expert.” The description may be humorous, but the issue isn’t.

This is the contract that Delray has not bid since 2001. This is the contract that a previous commission in 2012 extended for eight years without competitive bidding despite an opinion from the county’s Office of Inspector General that the city had to seek bids. This is the contract that the city successfully challenged in court, with the idea that seeking bids could save residents millions from the $65 million deal approved two years ago.

So getting the proposal right is the priority. The city’s chief financial officer agrees with the city attorney on spending the $25,000. So should the commission.

Good cop, bad cop? You decide

Finally, the commission may have to grind its teeth in approving a $225,000 settlement with a former Delray cop.

Vincent Gray, an ex-sergeant, sued the city in 2010, claiming that then-Assistant Police Chief Ralph Phillips had blocked him from promotion and defamed him. A settlement of $175,000 was proposed two years ago, but the commission rejected it. Then-City Attorney Brian Shutt, who resigned in January of this year, had recommended against approval of the settlement.

This time, City Attorney Noel Pfeffer recommends that the commission approve the larger amount. So does Interim City Manager Terry Stewart. In a memorandum to the commission, Pfeffer didn’t state his reasons, but that’s normal. Discussions about lawsuits happen in those closed executive sessions, and in the settlement the city admits to no wrongdoing. Gray will not be able to comment beyond platitudes if the commission approves the settlement. Everything is sensitive.

Under the settlement, Gray would get $100,000 in damages, $35,000 in back wages and $90,000 for legal fees. He also would resign from the department, but would be promoted to lieutenant before the retirement date.

Phillips consistently defended his actions, claiming that Gray targeted him for personal reasons. Gray claimed that Phillips had gone after him because Gray arrested Phillips’ son. Incidents between Scott Phillips and Delray police started another round of accusations. The state attorney’s office concluded that Phillips had acted inappropriately in one instance by driving to the scene and asking officers to uncuff his son, but decided that the action didn’t amount to a crime.

Obviously, $225,000 is a lot of money. But trying at this point to figure out the chances of Delray Beach prevailing in court? Good luck.

Lock it up

It remains a mystery to me why so many residents of Boca Raton make it so easy for criminals.

On Friday, the Boca Raton Police Department sent out a Crimewatch bulletin. It reported that the department had “responded to numerous reports of auto burglaries from UNLOCKED vehicles during the overnight hours.” In this case, the five burglaries were in the adjoining Boca Square and Camino Gardens neighborhoods. But it’s happening all over. In the Camino Lakes neighborhood, a gun was stolen from an unlocked car.

 On Monday I got another Crimewatch incident report. Cash and coils taken from a car. An unlocked car. Don’t blame the police for stuff like this.

More on airline fees

Last week, I reported on an anti-consumer bill regarding airline prices. I reported that Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, who represents most of eastern Boca Raton and Delray Beach, favored the legislation, which consumer travel groups oppose.

But I did not hear in time for my Thursday blog post from the office of Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, who represents most of western Boca and Delray. I now have a response from Deutch, who on this issue is much more consumer-friendly than Frankel.

The House bill is called the Transparent Airfares Act, a phony label, since it would allow airlines to hide on online sites the cost of airline fees that can greatly increase the advertised cost of a ticket. Airlines only would have to post the price of government fees.

In contrast, a Senate bill sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez would uphold a 2012 U.S. Department of Transportation rule requiring airlines to post all costs. Deutch favors this approach. His press aide emailed to say that the Senate version would require that “the full fares are posted up front, for consumers to make fully-informed travel decisions. This legislation is stronger than the House bill, which allows airlines to show only their ticket prices without the related fees and surcharges and thus has the potential to be abused by ticket sellers who could hide the full price from consumers until later in the purchasing process.”

Deutch, the aide said, is “not opposed to airlines showing the ticket price separately from the associated taxes and fees as long as the total fare is also provided up front for consumers.”

Given the growing dysfunction in Congress, the chance of reconciling the two versions this year in a way that helps the consumer is slim. If nothing happens, the 2012 rule at least will remain in effect, and that would be good for the public. And residents of this area who are regular fliers should know which member of Congress is on their side and which one isn’t.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.