Friday, June 21, 2024

Boca’s Next City Manager & Delray Focuses on CRA Budget

George Brown will be Boca Raton’s next city manager.

When? That’s hard to say.

Leif Ahnell, who has had the job for 24 years, is set to retire next April. This week, the council had been poised to hire a headhunting firm to conduct a search for Ahnell’s successor.

During council member comments at the end of Tuesday night’s meeting, however, Marc Wigder made a motion to hire Brown. Wigder added that the city should negotiate a contract with Brown within 30 days. He got quick support from Monica Mayotte and Fran Nachlas.

Mayor Scott Singer stepped in to confirm that Brown wanted the job. Brown indicated that he did. Then Singer asked when the succession would happen, since Wigder had suggested that Brown could assume the top job sooner than April, with Ahnell taking some sort of “consultant” role.

Wigder previously had noted that in addition to Ahnell’s departure, the city’s financial services director will retire next year. The assistant’s position in that department is vacant. Ahnell’s training is in finance. Wigder foresaw a major talent gap when it comes to the city’s budget.

At one point, Singer asked Ahnell to comment. He would accept an earlier transition, Ahnell said, “If I’m not penalized” financially. But he called any vague power-sharing arrangement “a recipe for disaster.”

wildflower lawsuit
Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell
Deputy City Manager George Brown

The choice of Brown makes sense. He has been a city employee for 45 years. As deputy manager, he has been Ahnell’s second-in-command for many years. He oversees the development services department. The other deputy manager, Andy Lukasik, was hired less than a year ago. Ahnell was an in-house hire himself.

City Attorney Diana Frieser asked what kind of contract she would negotiate. One for now? One for next April? Council members weren’t certain. Frieser said she would do research and update at the next meeting.

Wigder noted Wednesday that Mayotte had advocated for Brown at a meeting several months ago. With the city’s three-day strategic planning session starting the next morning and fewer meetings in the summer, Wigder decided that he needed to raise the issue on Tuesday.

“I’m happy that we got to start this process and found some consensus,” Wigder said. He noted that, with succession planning now off the agenda, council members could spend this week on other major priorities, such as road safety and economic development.

Indeed, Wigder and others clearly are dissatisfied with what they consider the slow pace of development review. “That’s the sense that I’ve been getting” from the community, said Wigder, who joined the council in March.

Under Director Brandon Schaad, Wigder said, the development services department is “maxed out” in terms of staff and workload. In addition to review of individual projects, the staff must craft complex ordinances to update rules for the Boca Raton Innovation Campus and the Park at Broken Sound in the job-heavy northwest section of the city.

Though Ahnell drew praise from all council members during his evaluation Tuesday, the discussion about Brown suggested to me that no one would complain if he left early. “Leif might not want to stay the whole time,” Wigder said, calling Ahnell “a fantastic public servant.”

Even if Ahnell stays another 11 months, Wigder wants the council to agree on a contract with Brown. Doing so, he said, would amount to “codification” that Brown will take over.

Brown said he and Ahnell would “collaborate” on matters such as hiring until Brown takes over. Echoing Ahnell, however, Brown said, “You cannot have two city managers.” Council members now must sort out what they started.

Calls for a more proactive Boca council

Before naming Brown the manager in waiting, council members complained about news blindsiding them.

One example was the transfer of sea turtles from Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Another related to the dog park. Mayotte said, “I don’t like finding out something after the public.” Nachlas called the turtle issue a “low point.” Singer called for more “pro-activity” on communications.

This is the council’s way of saying that Boca Raton always should set the agenda, not react. It’s the dream of elected officials at every level. Especially in today’s multi-platform media world, though, it’s an unrealistic expectation.

Delray to focus on CRA budget

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Council members hired a new facilitator for those planning sessions because they want to focus on high-level goals for Boca Raton. Delray Beach’s one-day goal-setting session, which takes place Friday, will be much less lofty.

City Commissioner Ryan Boylston said the emphasis will be on “fundamentals.” Commissioner Rob Long noted that several major projects are in progress, notably the water plant and a pair of bond programs for public safety and parks.

Nothing is more fundamental than the budget. The commission already has agreed to make a key change. Implementing it likely will take up lots of time on Friday.

For several years, the community redevelopment agency has given money every three months to non-profit groups. Current recipients are Arts Garage, the Community Land Trust, the Delray Beach Historical Society, Spady Museum, the city library and the chamber of commerce. Collectively, the groups receive about $1 million a year.

The goal of CRAs is to eradicate blight. The Delray CRA has justified the expense by saying that the non-profits bolster the area within the agency’s boundaries and thus guard against the return of blight.

Recently, however, the Legislature has tightened rules on how CRAs can spend the money that comes from increased property values within a CRA. Money for Delray Beach’s non-profits, Long said, has become “risky.”

Tallahassee has oversight because the Legislature must approve creation of any CRA. Legislators could formally declare such payments illegal.

In Delray Beach, city commissioners make up five of the seven positions on the CRA board. Last month, Boylston proposed taking that $1 million out of the city budget. To offset that added expense, the CRA would find a similar amount in recurring costs that would come out of the agency’s budget.

CRA Executive Director Renee Jadusingh and City Manager Terrence Moore like the idea. So do the non-profits. Last year, the CRA—with different members—made it much easier for the agency to demand the return of money already allocated. It was a reaction to the controversy over Old School Square, which also had received CRA money.

The change will be part of a wider effort to involve the commission earlier in the budget. In recent years, commissioners have complained that when they see the preliminary budget in August, it’s too late to make major changes.

Commissioner Angela Burns, who took office with Long in March, echoed Boylston in saying that goal-setting priorities should be “consistent” with Delray Beach’s comprehensive plan. “I’m focused,” Burns said, “on ensuring stability, sustainability and long-term prosperity.”

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Randy Schultz
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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