Boca Lists Budget Priorities, Delray’s Lauzier Lawsuit Moves On & More

By this time next year, Boca Raton wants to have approved a lease that would bring a performing arts center to Mizner Park, made a start on safety measures for Palmetto Park Road east of the Intracoastal Waterway, expanded use of the popular El Rio Trail for biking and walking and planned for how to connect the Brightline station with the rest of downtown.

Meanwhile, Boca Raton wants to maintain what City Manager Leif Ahnell calls “the highest level of service to residents.” Another key project for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 is opening the Boca Raton Golf and Racquet Club, which will be the city’s new public course and offer other recreational amenities.

Ahnell lays out these plans in the budget document that the city council will start to review on Monday at 6 p.m. in the first of two public hearings. Though the priorities are not new, residents now can see how much it will cost to implement them.

Example: Renovating the former Boca Country Club—the course and the facilities—will cost $6.5 million. Operating the club will cost $369,000 a year. The city takes over operation of the 167 acres on Oct. 31.

Also on that date, the city expects to close on the $65 million sale of Boca Raton Municipal Golf Club. Ahnell wants to allocate $7.8 million of the proceeds toward the capital improvement fund.

Ahnell wants to add 23 positions, including a second assistant city manager. Boca Raton also has two deputy city managers. He proposes another $206,500 for added park ranger patrols and $253,000 for the city’s building safety recertification program.

Other new expenses are familiar. Boca Raton must spend an additional $2.3 million next year on the police and fire pension funds. Employee salaries and benefits will increase by about $7.5 million. And the council’s decision not to outsource trash pickup will require new vehicles.

Though property values increased almost four percent, that new revenue alone—the tax rate will stay the same— wouldn’t be enough to avoid raising the tax rate. So Ahnell wants to use $7.2 million of the city’s $12.2 million from the American Rescue Plan to balance the budget.

Cities were supposed to get the money in two allocations—half last May and half next May. According to a city spokeswoman, Boca Raton still hasn’t received that first share. But because all the money will come during the budget year, the city wants to use it all at once.

President Biden and congressional Democrats—no Republican voted last March for this latest COVID-19 relief bill—attached conditions to the money. Cities must show that they are using it to replace revenue lost because of the pandemic.

Though property tax revenue held up in South Florida, the spokeswoman said Boca Raton was way down in other sources, notably sales taxes. Revenue from the county’s 2016, one-cent sales tax surcharge dipped last year. That $5 million will help to replenish the fund for city projects, such as the Lake Wyman/Rutherford Park makeover.

Obviously, there’s a risk to using all the American Rescue Plan money for the 2021-22 budget. There almost certainly will be no similar legislation next year. If the pandemic persists enough to keep down revenue, next year’s budget could bring a tax increase or service cuts.

“As the city continues to experience growth and the effects of urbanization throughout the city and the region,” Ahnell wrote—in boldface type, for emphasis—“it is critical for the city to continue to pay very close attention to the rising cost of services, and continued monitoring of the ongoing effects of COVID-19.”

Lauzier lawsuit

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The Delray City Commission will meet this afternoon in executive session—public not allowed—to discuss the lawsuit by former City Manager Mark Lauzier.

Lauzier alleges that his March 2019 firing was retaliation for his questioning of Mayor Shelly Petrolia. Lauzier said Petrolia asked him to approve city money for her son to accompany her on a trip to Tallahassee. Petrolia and the other commissioners say that they fired Lauzier for violating the city charter.

The case had been set for a jury trial as soon as next week, but there’s been a continuance. Lauzier seeks damages and attorney fees.

Two weeks ago, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Samantha Schosberg Feurer ruled on the city’s motion to exclude certain evidence. She granted the city’s request to exclude news articles about Lauzier and any mention of his dismissed whistleblower complaint. But she denied the request to exclude alleged “pretext, bias or motive of the city.” Feuer wants to hear Lauzier’s allegation before making a final decision.

Interestingly, one potential witness for Lauzier is George Gretsas. He was Lauzier’s successor before the commission also fired him. Lauzier also wants to call former Fire Chief/Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus and the director and a staff member of the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics. Feuer reserved her rulings on all of those potential witnesses.

Sid Garcia is Lauzier’s attorney. I asked if there’s a settlement offer from either side. “There have been discussions throughout this” about a settlement.

Why does he want to call Gretsas? “There seems to be a conflict between the strong-manager form of government and some on the commission who want a strong-mayor form of government.”

Jerich plea scheduled

Monday is the scheduled plea conference for Alexander Jerich. He faces one felony charge and one misdemeanor charge in the defacing of Delray Beach’s LGBTQ Pride streetscape last June.

The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office responded to the discovery request from Jerich’s attorney by listing all the relevant investigators and evidence. Among other things, prosecutors will cite three pages of information about the rally for Donald Trump in which Jerich participated.

The rally led to the streetscape, where another participant urged Jerich to execute the “burnout” maneuver in his truck that left tire marks. State Attorney Dave Aronberg declined to file hate-crime charges. LGBTQ advocates want Jerich to do jail time. His maximum sentence is six years.

Opioid lawsuits

In the last few days, we got much closer to resolution of the national opioid lawsuits that include Delray Beach and Boca Raton among the plaintiffs.

Forty-two states—Florida among them—and the District of Columbia have agreed to the proposed settlement with Johnson & Johnson and three distributors of prescription painkillers. The settlement would give the plaintiffs $26 billion, but roughly 3,000 plaintiffs would divide the money. City Attorney Lynn Gelin already said that the settlement is unlikely to make Delray Beach whole for what the epidemic cost.

In addition, a federal judge has tentatively approved a $4.3 billion settlement of the lawsuits against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. But the Sackler family, which owns the company and whose critics blame for the epidemic, would be immune from their own civil litigation.

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Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.