The relationship between Boca Raton and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District sounds more and more like an episode of Jerry Springer or Dr. Phil.
The two sides held another meeting last week, mostly about the proposed new municipal golf course but also about recreation spending throughout Boca Raton. At that meeting, the district board again asked the council to approve the district’s design for the course.
It would replace the closed Ocean Breeze course within the Boca Teeca community. The city has a contract to sell Boca Raton’s current 18-hole, public course to GL Homes. As of now, the district would build and run the course. But under the agreement by which the city underwrote bonds for the district to buy the land, the city must approve the plan for the course.
Under that agreement, city approval cannot be “unreasonably withheld.” City council members don’t like the design and are skeptical that the district can build the course for roughly $15 million without raising taxes or withdrawing from financial commitments with the city. District board members believe that none of those issues would be grounds for withholding approval.
At the meeting, council members and city administrators complained that the district had sent scant information about the plan—and just four days earlier. “We have two pages of documents,” Mayor Scott Singer said. Previously, city officials had complained that they didn’t know how much it would cost residents and non-residents to play the course.
So City Manager Leif Ahnell said the staff would “analyze” the plan and report to the council. A city spokeswoman said that report wouldn’t be ready in time for next week’s meetings.
Residents of Boca Teeca, whose homes border the closed course, mostly have aligned with the beach and park district. So have local golf associations. Even though rejecting city money—as the district board has done—would delay opening the course for perhaps five years, those groups like the district’s Price Fazio design and say that they are willing to wait for it.
Council members, however, worry about this scenario: The city approves the plan, but the district comes up short on money and the city has to take over the course anyway. The city would he stuck with a design that the city opposes.
Here’s another unpleasant scenario: The city rejects the site plan and the district sues, citing that “not unreasonably withheld” language.
District board chairwoman Susan Vogelgesang said, “I hope it doesn’t come to that, but that’s the next step.” Litigation, she said, would create between the district and city “a chasm that could never be crossed.”
Golf may be the flashpoint, but this dispute—dating back at least five years —affects anyone who uses one of Boca Raton’s many parks.
The district has just two full-time employees. Most of the money it raises goes to the city, one way or another. For decades after creation of the district in 1974 to help buy beachfront land, the relationship worked well. Example: purchase of the land for Sugar Sand Park.
More recently, the relationship has been more dysfunctional. Each side blames the other.
Vogelgesang said the district has contributed money toward projects—beach restoration, turf at Patch Reef Park—for which it was not obligated. City council members respond that the district tried to pull a bait-and-switch on the golf course. The district first said that it would need only more underwriting from the city for construction. Then the district asked for $20 million and full control in what City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke called “a take-it-or-leave-it offer.”
Eventually, the city and district must cooperate on financing the parks network that makes Boca Raton so appealing. Board member Steve Engel wants the city to “value engineer” district projects, to get the most reliable cost estimates. Example: the projected cost of the plumbing project at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center has doubled.
City residents also pay property taxes to the district. The district compiles its operating and capital budgets with input from the city. Each has made commitments to the other. Board member Craig Ehrnst said the district will “abide by” all agreements. “I hope the city continues to honor signed agreements.”
Somehow, the city and district must break this impasse on the golf course and beyond. That means they must stop talking past each other.
Singer described the current relationship as “helpful. At least from my point of view for what the city continues to offer with time, talent, and many millions of dollars to get a (golf) course open after the district has taken this long to date.”
He added, “I’m still surprised that the district would prefer, with their uncertain budget and timeline, to take this on alone rather than accept the city’s generous offer to fund and build and entire course consistent with the vision of the residents and with the district’s input.”
And what word would Vogelgesang use to describe that relationship?
Perspectives differ on incident
To even better understand how divided the city and district remain, consider how the two sides see what happened at their meeting last Nov. 12.
Vogelgesang said a Boca Raton resident approached the table where board members were sitting. He accused Vogelgesang of working with Compson Associates to sell the Ocean Strand property, which the district legally could not sell. She considered his behavior threatening. After the meeting at the city complex on North Congress Avenue, several people, including a police officer, escorted Vogelgesang to her car.
The next day, Vogelgesang filed a police report. According to the responding officer, Vogelgesang “reported that she was verbally targeted” and told the officer that the man’s conduct was “alarming.”
Vogelgesang’s colleagues saw the conduct as dangerous. When the man spoke about the incident to city council members, they saw it differently.
They agreed with the man that the threat was to First Amendment speech, not to Vogelgesang. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke called free speech “one of my core values” and said elected office sometimes brings strong public criticism. Andy Thomson made similar comments.
No charges were filed. Vogelgesang said this week that she wanted only for the incident to be on the record and has no second thoughts. Had the man not approached the board members’ table, Vogelgesang said, she would not have responded so strongly. Perhaps he wasn’t a threat, but the possibility of physical violence “was my perception.”
As with everything between the city council and the beach and park district board, perception is everything.
Gretsas settles in
George Gretsas has been Delray Beach’s city manager for only a month. In that time, he has concluded that little has changed from the city commission’s goal-setting session that preceded him last spring.
Which means that he understands Delray Beach’s greatest need: money.
When we spoke, though, Gretsas was focused less on the citywide list of needs than on the importance of picking one project and getting it done. For him, that’s the new fire station on Linton Boulevard.
It’s a fitting target for several reasons. At $16 million, it’s the more expensive among those that Delray Beach will finance with money from the sales-tax surcharge that county voters approved in 2016. It will include the emergency operations center that the city needs so badly. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, the jerry-rigged center at fire-rescue headquarters leaked. And it will give Gretsas a chance to show his management style.
Gretsas told me that he wants to go over the design “brick by brick” to determine “whether we have maximized our opportunities.” He understands that the city commission has asked him to move quickly on such infrastructure work and to lower the tax rate. Fortunately, the ratings agencies consider city finances to be sound.
Otherwise, Gretsas said Delray Beach upon closer inspection is “a beautiful city with so much to offer—the beach, downtown.” City Hall staffers “seem dedicated and have been very welcoming. They’re invested in our collective success. It’s nice.”
Three key department head jobs—Public Works, Utilities and Neighborhood & Community Services remain open. Gretsas had hoped to be close to filling them by now, but the city is starting the search over. The first pass “did not turn up” enough candidates Gretsas wanted to consider.
When we spoke in December, Gretsas laid out a rough meeting schedule for his first month. He spent 90 minutes with Mayor Shelly Petrolia and the city commissioners and 60 minutes with the department heads.
After that, it’s been “three to five minutes plopping down next to the desk” of City Hall staffers and “hearing their story.” He got to the Police Department for a long session in late January, met with union leaders and now is getting around to the Downtown Development Authority and the Chamber of Commerce.
He will be hearing what the commission told him: Delray Beach has many needs. Some commissioners have talked about a major bond issue. For now, Gretsas said only that he wants to spend money left over from previous bond programs. “We’ve talked about options.”
His immediate goal is more modest: “stability.”
Boca Regional donation
Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus has made his second major gift to Boca Raton Regional Hospital.
In a news release this week, the hospital announced that the Marcus Foundation will donate $15 million toward Boca Regional’s Keeping the Promise capital campaign. It is financing construction of new patient towers, a parking garage and a power plant. Marcus’ gift means that the campaign has raised $153 million.
Marcus previously had donated $25 million toward the hospital’s neuroscience institute that bears his name and opened in 2012. According to the hospital, the number of surgeries at the institute nearly tripled between 2015 and 2019. For the next phase of expansion, Boca Regional wants to add a stem cell program.
Forbes has estimated Marcus’ net worth at roughly $6 billion. Marcus and his wife, Billi Marcus, have signed the Giving Pledge, intending that they want to give away at least half of their wealth during their lifetimes.
I wrote recently about new tenants for the Uptown Boca development on Glades Road east of State Road 7. One previously announced tenant, however, won’t be coming. Lucky’s Market announced the company is closing all its stores and cancelling planned openings, including the one for Uptown Boca.
Coco Gauff & Delray
While Delray Beach’s Coco Gauff was advancing to the fourth round at the Australian Open and improving her world ranking to 51st, her family continued to gain notice.
During the tournament, the Washington Post profiled Gauff’s grandmother, Yvonne Lee Odom, telling again the story of how she integrated Seacrest High School as a 15-year-old in 1961. It showed again that Coco Gauff’s story is also Delray Beach’s story.