Monday, August 8, 2022

Boca To Expand Housing Authority Amid Dixie Manor Concerns & More


Boca Raton City Council members will expand the board of the city’s housing authority.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, the council asked City Attorney Diana Frieser to determine whether the action must come in the form of an ordinance or a resolution. Either way, the council will add two members to the five-member board.

The flashpoint for this decision is Dixie Manor, the public housing complex north of Pearl City that the authority oversees. Last year, the board set out to upgrade or rebuild Dixie Manor. Many residents have complained that the authority isn’t telling them enough about what will happen when construction displaces them. Given the tight rental market, many worry about being homeless until they can return—if they want to return.

Last fall, Dixie Manor residents began appearing at council meetings, asking for help. Though council members appoint the board, the city has no direct involvement in Dixie Manor. All public money comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Early on, council members talked about expanding the board to increase diversity and give residents more input. Only one board member, Angela McDonald, is a Dixie Manor tenant.

Board members resisted. Their preferred response was creation of a residents’ council. Brian Stenberg, who ran for the city council last year, said the residents’ council could be “an effective group to encourage neighborhood cohesion and civic participation. It can be a big step toward improving communication among Dixie Manor residents, the housing authority and the community at large.”

Given their comments Tuesday, though, city council members have lost patience with the authority. McDonald spoke at the meeting and asked again for a larger board. A serious new issue also prompted council members to act.

On Feb. 22, police arrested a 20-year-old man for raping a 13-year-old girl last March in a vacant apartment at Dixie Manor. McDonald told me Wednesday that residents had heard very little about the incident. A speaker Tuesday echoed that sentiment and noted that most Dixie Manor residents are single mothers. “We need answers” about security, she said.

The alleged victim did not live at Dixie Manor. But the alleged assailant—Carlos Correa-Martinez—did. Council members criticized the authority for not promptly informing residents about a violent incident that occurred a year ago.

Andrea O’Rourke began the discussion by saying that she had read minutes of recent housing authority meetings. “There is acrimony,” she said of the agency. “You can feel it.” Mayor Scott Singer  noted that the council must approve the plan for any new or upgraded complex and suggested that the city also needs more information in advance.

Unspoken but acknowledged is the all-white council’s desire not to seem dismissive of low-income Black Boca Raton residents. Andy Thomson said the council should expand the board and appoint new members “as quickly as possible.”

Brightline safety issues

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Brilghtline at West Palm Beach

As Boca Raton officials tout the Brightline station that could open early next year, Brightline is dealing with a new series of crashes at crossings.

Last month, there were five in one week. Another happened this week in the Broward County city of Oakland Park. Fortunately, the driver suffered only minor injuries.

One thing about the nearly 60 incidents since Brightline began running trains is the same: neither Brightline nor the safety equipment at a crossing has been to blame. Each time, the fault has been with a driver or a pedestrian.

Still, the Federal Railway Administration held a meeting last month in Boynton Beach to discuss additional ways that all train companies could improve safety. A second meeting will take place next month in Miami-Dade County.

Obviously, safety has been an issue in Boca Raton from the start. There are eight grade crossings in the city on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks that Brightline uses. But things will get more complicated when the station opens.

Trains won’t breeze through Boca Raton. Roughly three dozen times a day, they will stop for three minutes at the station just north of Palmetto Park Road. Most crashes have resulted from impatient drivers or pedestrians going around crossing gates. Station stops could increase that impatience.

Brightline will run the trains, but the city is responsible for enforcing safety at the crossings. A city spokeswoman said, “Brightline has been engaged with the community and the city.” The company and Brightline “have also worked together on training, surveillance and enforcement.”

A Brightline spokesman said “small mitigations” can make crossings safer. Concrete medians can prevent drivers from going around gates. Some crossings might get even longer gates. Cities can move bus stops farther from crossings and stations.

Even before Brightline and Boca Raton announced the station, city police officials worried that the new service could increase the risk of suicides. Most fatalities, though, have come when drivers tried to beat the train. Tri-Rail faces the same problems with its trains on the CSX tracks farther west.

Though it’s only March, Boca Raton won’t wait long on developing a safety plan. Work on the station and parking garage is moving rapidly.

Delray water and sewer rates

The Delray Beach City Commission has approved a plan to start raising water and sewer rates in July as the city gears up to begin work on a new plant.

Two months ago, a consultant had laid out a schedule that would increase rates for the average homeowner from $57 to $80 over the next four years. The city hasn’t raised rates for a decade. At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners settled on a schedule under which rates would go up to roughly $75 by 2026. The city’s financial consultant said that increase still would provide enough revenue to satisfy the credit markets.

As she did during January’s presentation, Mayor Shelly Petrolia asked whether the city could leverage utilities department reserves to lower the cost of a bond issue and thus push rates even lower. As happened in January, the consultant said the ratings agencies “look solely at revenue.”

Delray Beach recently obtained a $10 million federal grant toward the plant, the cost of which is estimated at between $50 million and $60 million. If the city got more grants that lowered the cost, the consultant said, the city could adjust rates lower.

Who works for who

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Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell

Though Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell’s bosses are the five council members, it didn’t seem that way on Tuesday.

During member comment at the end of the meeting, Councilwoman Yvette Drucker asked why Ahnell had stopped sending her and her colleagues police department reports. Drucker said she had found them helpful. Singer said, “I echo that.” Monica Mayotte agreed, saying that she also had asked Ahnell why the reports stopped coming.

Singer asked Ahnell to resume sending them. “I heard that,” Ahnell said. He responded testily that the documents are “internal reports” and “part of what I do in running the city.” They are “operational reports,” Ahnell said, that he is “not obligated” to release to council members.

Once more, Singer asked Ahnell to comply. Because doing so would mean “a lot of work with everything else the council requests.” Ahnell said he “can’t guarantee” that he will do so.

Ahnell has held the job since 1999. He can stay no later than 2024, since he’s in the mandatory retirement program.

Ahnell works for the council. The council gave him an order. Ahnell gave no assurance that he would follow it. Singer ended the discussion by saying, “I’ll encourage you” to comply and “leave it for your consideration.”

Randy Schultz
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.

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