City Manager Ahnell Starts Retirement Planning, Wildflower Lawsuit Goes Away

wildflower lawsuit
Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell

Ahnell looks ahead

One way or the other, Boca Raton will have a new city manager in five years.

A city spokeswoman confirmed Monday that Leif Ahnell has entered the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, known as DROP. The program is basically a five-year countdown to retirement for employees of a certain age and with a certain length of service, during which pension benefits accrue toward a lump-sum payment rather than monthly benefits. For highly paid employees like Ahnell, who makes almost a quarter-million dollars, the program can be very lucrative.

Ahnell has been city manager since 1999. All candidates in the March election expressed support for the city council to conduct annual, public evaluations of Ahnell. His contract calls for such evaluations, but the council hasn’t done one in many years.

Obviously, nothing on the third floor of City Hall likely will change soon. Many department heads, however, are similarly long-tenured. Mayor Susan Haynie said of Ahnell’s decision, “I was surprised.” She said the council regularly discusses “succession planning” at the annual goal setting, which happens Thursday and Friday. Despite the horizon, the discussion this year may take longer.

Wildflower lawsuit dropped

There will be no new lawsuit over Boca Raton’s waterfront ordinance.

In January, ForBoca challenged the ordinance, which voters approved in November, on the grounds that it amounted to a public referendum on a development order. The city had been negotiating a lease with Hillstone Restaurant Group for the property. James Hendrey, who lives across the Intracoastal Waterway, led the petition drive for the ordinance because he opposed the restaurant. ForBoca financed the campaign against the ordinance, which got 67 percent of the vote.

The city countered that the ordinance amounted to an administrative matter. In March, ForBoca withdrew the lawsuit. Attorney Gerald Richman, who represents ForBoca, said the group intended to refile and seek a hearing before an administrative law judge, not a circuit court judge.

Last week, however, Richman told me that the city is moving quickly to rezone the Wildflower property from commercial to recreational. Such a move, Richman said, would “cure” the core legal issue and render the lawsuit “moot.” To accommodate the restaurant, the city council last summer rezoned the portion of the property that had been residential. The ordinance restricts the use of city-owned waterfront property to four public uses, one of which is recreation.

Councilman Robert Weinroth said of the zoning change that the city is “rushing it through,” though there is no date for consideration. Weinroth opposed the waterfront ordinance. After it passed, however, he sought to “grandfather” in all potentially non-conforming private uses, such as the gift shop at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. “I believe we should accept the will of the residents,” even though most probably didn’t understand that the issue was about one neighborhood’s opposition to a restaurant, not about protecting waterfront parks.

Richman called it “regrettable” that the city’s action would block the lawsuit. “We would have succeeded.” The city now will focus on a plan that would link the Wildflower site with Silver Palm Park, which is on the other side of Palmetto Park Road and has the city’s only launching site for motorized boats.

Shortfall ahead?

During the recent presentation on Boca Raton’s annual financial report there was discussion about a projected gap between revenue and expenses by 2020. If the projections hold, the city might need to raise the tax rate.

A city spokeswoman, though, called the projection “not atypical for long-range financial planning. It’s an indicator that if expenses rise and revenues stay the same, and we don’t make adjustments accordingly, there will be a crunch. So we have time to make adjustments, on the revenue or expense side or both as necessary.”

If the deceptive ordinance hadn’t blocked it, the Hillstone restaurant on the Wildflower site might have opened in 2020. Under the terms of the last proposed lease, Boca Raton would have received between $2.5 million and $3 million that first year. So if 2020 arrives with a need for higher taxes or an increase in the fire fee, you can partially blame those who promoted the ordinance.

Homestead exemption expansion

In a related matter, the Florida Legislature has placed on the 2018 ballot a constitutional amendment that would raise the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000. It surely will pass.

Cities oppose the proposal. Ahnell ran the numbers and concluded that Boca Raton would lose $1.75 million. Delray Beach has not calculated how much revenue the city might lose. The change, though, surely would shift more of the tax burden to owners of commercial property and second homes. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, is pushing the amendment. He’s expected to run for governor next year.

Mizner 200 headed toward hearing

Having received a favorable report from Boca Raton’s architectural consultant, the Mizner 200 project finally will have a formal hearing before the community appearance board on May 16. Two days later, Mizner 200 will go before the planning and zoning board. The 384-unit project would replace Mizner on the Green and would stretch for nearly 900 feet along Southeast Mizner Boulevard.

Delray arrest

Delray Beach detectives have arrested 17-year-old Steny Louis in Saturday’s fatal shooting of 21-year-old Einstein Mondesir. Louis allegedly shot Mondesir multiple times after confronting him at 1541 Catherine Drive in the city’s Lucaya neighborhood. Louis faces a charge of first-degree murder. It is the city’s first homicide of 2017.

Delray seeks to ban conversion therapy

At tonight’s meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission likely will make a statement against conversion therapy, the controversial practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight or to change someone’s gender identification.

No one in Delray Beach attempts the practice. If the commission adopts the proposed ban, no one will be able to offer such so-called counseling. Supporters of conversion therapy have argued that such bans violate their right to religious expression, but the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld California’s statewide ban. Still, to protect the measure from legal challenges, the Delray Beach law would restrict the ban to minors and would exempt members of the clergy.

Status quo for City Manager

For the next few months, Delray Beach apparently will leave well enough alone when it comes to Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus.

It’s been six weeks since the election. New commissioners Jim Chard and Shirley Ervin Johnson have not pushed the issue of whether de Jesus should get the job permanently or the city should look for a replacement, with de Jesus going back to being fire-rescue chief. Business gets done, projects move forward.

“Right now,” Mayor Cary Glickstein said, “it’s working. The commission seems pleased, senior staff seems pleased, and there’s still progress” under Interim Fire Chief Keith Tomey. “I don’t expect any discussion about this, at the earliest, until after budget is passed.” That won’t happen until September. “It’s working to the satisfaction of many and that alone is worth more than a title change of interim to permanent.”

Palm Beach County Trump costs covered in bill

President Trump got little of what he wanted in the spending resolution that Congress passed Monday to keep the federal government operating through September, which is the end of the budget year. Palm Beach County, however, got what it wanted when it comes to Trump.

The plan allows local governments to seek compensation for costs associated with security during the president’s regular visits to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. According to Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, who represents Delray Beach and points north, the visits have cost the sheriff’s office and fire-rescue department a combined $4 million.

Though Trump will come here less often as temperatures rise, he probably will go more often to his golf club in New Jersey. The Florida, New Jersey and New York delegations worked to insert the compensation language into the spending bill. New York City must help with security at Trump Tower in Manhattan, where Trump’s wife and son live and where he also visits. The bill allows $20 million in reimbursement for costs before Trump’s inauguration and $41 million through Sept. 30 of next year.


Missed the last City Watch? Visit our Community/City Watch page, and subscribe to the magazine for more City Watch columns in every issue.