Boca Raton Beach and Park Taxes May Rise, Brightline Update & More

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Red Reef Park in Boca Raton. Photo by Aaron Bristol.

Two years ago, Boca Raton city council members spoke out publicly, loudly and successfully against a possible tax increase by the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. It’s budget time again, and this time the district is playing offense.

In an email newsletter 10 days ago, the district claimed that board members may have to raise taxes because of how much the city intends to charge the district for services next year. The board set the higher rate but could go lower after budget hearings in September.

Though the proposed rate would be almost a 20 percent increase, that number is misleading. The current rate is just 88 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value. The proposed rate of $1.05 would mean an increase of $85 a year for a homestead assessed at $500,000.

And even if the rate stayed the same, property owners would pay more. That’s because property values went up roughly three percent in Boca Raton and areas west of the city to Florida’s Turnpike. Like city dwellers, those residents also are members of the beach and park district.

Beyond money, the bigger story is the continuing dysfunctional relationship between the city and the district. This follows recent conflict between the two agencies on setting recreational priorities for the next two decades.

Given the appeal of Boca Raton’s parks and the activities within them, that dysfunction is problematic. It has existed since I began writing this blog in 2014. Like a persistent wildfire, it dies down but flares back up.

Two years ago, Boca Raton officials believed that the district wanted to raise taxes to pay for a golf course that the city considered too expensive. With The Boca Raton’s owners having donated Boca Country Club to the city, the issue of a new, 18-hole course to replace Boca Raton Municipal is settled. But some district board members still want a golf facility at Ocean Breeze, where the district had planned the new municipal layout.

I asked district board member Craig Ehrnst if the newsletter was retaliation for 2019. “Not at all,” he said, “I think our community wants to maintain our parks at a high standard, but there is always a challenge with the cost structure and who pays for them.”

Most of the budget for the district—which has just two permanent employees–goes to reimburse the city for expenses at parks. It’s part of the dual ownership/management arrangement between the two agencies. According to the district, the city wants $26.8 million for next year, which would be more than the district’s budget that includes non-city items.

If the tax rate didn’t rise, the newsletter warned, the district might have to close parks or curtail hours. In Congress, this is known as the Washington Monument Strategy. If someone asks you to cut money, threaten to close the Washington Monument.

Ehrnst noted that the district lowered its rate a fraction last year while the city council did not. He said that the city included projects for next year that the district did not anticipate, such as a maintenance facility at Spanish River Athletic Park.

Not surprisingly, the city has a different view. A spokeswoman said, “We do not agree with the premise of the newsletter. The city is in the process of developing its budget and will work with the (district), as we do each year, to consider, discuss and prioritize programs, services, and projects.”

City Councilman Andy Thomson said, “I was surprised to see such negative comments in an ‘official communication’ from the (district). I wonder if those comments represent the views of all of the commissioners, or whether all of the commissioners authorized or even knew about such an ‘official communication.'”

Brian Harms, the district’s executive director, said she and Board Chairwoman Susan Vogelgesang reviewed the newsletter. It was a product, Harms said, of the district’s collaboration with a public relations firm to “educate” the public about what the district does.

Thomson added, “The (district) goes to great lengths to distance itself from the (city), particularly from having to fund the operation of the city’s parks and beaches, which is strange, since that’s why the (district) exists: to help fund the operation of Boca Raton’s parks and beaches.”

Ehrnst said the city and district “need to think through” projects for the Ocean Strand property and for Ocean Breeze. That’s true. Thinking through is hard, though, when the relationship is so bad.

Brightline preparing to reopen

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Yes, you’ve been seeing Brightline trains in Boca Raton and Delray Beach over the last few days.

The company suspended service in March 2020. According to a spokesman, Brightline has begun test runs “in advance of reopening.” He said the company would have a media update “in a couple of weeks.” At that event, the company will talk more about reopening and the start of construction for the Boca Raton station.

On that second note, the site plan for the station and garage got a favorable recommendation this month from the planning and zoning board. It will go before the city council on Aug. 24. The staff recommends approval with several minor conditions.

In addition, Brightline and the city have finalized a federal grant that will reduce the city’s cost for the parking garage by $1.5 million to roughly $10 million. At tonight’s regular meeting, the city council will approve an amended agreement with the company to reflect that.

Historical Society upgrade has a big price tag

Speaking of money, the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum wants more from the city.

In 2019, the society asked for the city for $650,000 toward a renovation program. The city owns the downtown museum, which served as Boca Raton’s first town hall and now doubles as the welcome center.

That city money would pay for work on the building itself, notably plumbing and electrical upgrades. The society, said Executive Director Mary Csar, would pay for interior work to expand with new exhibits.

During Monday’s workshop meeting, Csar told council members what almost every homeowner hears: the work took longer and cost more. The pipes weren’t just old; they had crumbled. The foundation wasn’t just sagging; it needed screw jacks to prevent a collapse.

As a result, Csar said, the work went about $600,000 over budget. Though the society has paid the bills, Csar asked the city—as the landlord—for reimbursement.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke had received a tour of the renovated museum. She praised the “amazing, exciting” new exhibits, which include a city timeline, drawings by Addison Mizner and a wartime history of the air base that is now Florida Atlantic University.

But, O’Rourke said, Csar was seeking “a pretty big ask.” Mayor Scott Singer wanted to know why the society needed money if the bills had been paid.

City Manager Leif Ahnell said the society has given his office all the relevant documents from the project. City staff will review them and report back to the council.

Strange arson case in Delray

A Delray Beach police officer faces charges of torching his car and lying about it.

According to the probable cause affidavit, on March 29, 2020, Dallas Richardson claimed that his car had been stolen. It was found burning, with the license plate and vehicle identification number removed. Investigators found “multiple inconsistencies” in Richardson’s story.

Among other things, investigators determined that Richardson had the only set of keys to the vehicle. “It would be extremely difficult,” the affidavit reads, to steal the car without the keys.

Richardson is charged with arson and perjury. He has been suspended.

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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.