Sunday, May 26, 2024

Budget Tales of Two Cities, Delray CRA and Other News and Notes

The biggest increases in Boca Raton’s budget are not for anything new. They are to maintain what the city already is providing.

City Manager Leif Ahnell’s proposal calls for a general fund budget of $175 million. That’s the budget that gets most of your property taxes. Ahnell forecasts a $10.6 million increase, with roughly $6 million of that for higher police and fire salaries, benefits and pension costs. In Boca Raton, as in most full-service cities, public safety consumes more than half of the general fund budget.

Overall, though, general fund spending will go up only about $6 million. That’s because the city will not transfer $5 million to the retirement stabilization fund. Ahnell created the fund in hopes of avoiding the trauma that came during the Great Recession, when the stock market crash drove down pension fund investment returns.

The fund supports all three pensions—fire, police and general employees—and the city has been transferring money to it each year. According to a city spokeswoman, however, next year’s budget is “too tight” for a transfer.

The overall budget is $508 million. That includes funds financed by other sources of revenue, notably the water and sewer and sanitation funds that run on fees. Another fund pays for capital work, such as road improvements and construction projects. The budget sets aside $17.5 million for hurricane response.

Boca Raton’s overall tax rate would stay about the same. The city would have more money because of property tax revenue from projects that went on the rolls this year and a roughly 6 percent increase from last year in property values. Inflation and public safety contracts, though, continue to eat up much of the increase. So does the demand for new services related to growth.

The city will hold the first of two hearings on the budget next Thursday at 6 p.m. Council members will hear at that time from representatives of non-profit groups that want money. The second hearing is scheduled for Sept. 24, also at 6 p.m.

Each city’s budget reflects the priorities of the elected policymakers. Ahnell’s list follows the discussion last spring at goal-setting sessions.

Among other things, council members want administrators to develop a master plan for the planned downtown government campus. They want continued engagement on schools. They want to resolve issues with the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. They want a continued emphasis on job creation and retention. They want planners to study the idea of new zoning regulations that could redevelop North Dixie Highway. They want progress on the Art in Public Places Program.

Boca Raton has roughly 1,800 employees, and Ahnell proposes adding 22 positions. None is for police and fire. All are for the grunt work of a city, from permitting to maintenance to parking enforcement.

Elected officials once again will boast of the city’s low tax rate—just $3.68 for every $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a home assessed at $300,000 would pay $1,472. Remember, though, that all city residents also pay the beach and park district tax of nearly $1. So the effective tax rate in Boca Raton is higher. And there all those fees—including a fire fee—that are taxes in all but name.

Delray CRA update

Based on the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency’s last meeting, the takeover by the city commission is taking hold.

In recent years, commissioners have complained about not being able to align the city’s priorities with the CRA’s priorities. Why couldn’t the CRA spend more on projects that would free the city to spend money outside the CRA?

With the abolition last spring of the independent board, though, the commission became the CRA board, plus two appointed members. That puts the mayor and commission in charge of both budgets.

So at the Aug. 27 meeting, the commission itself could discuss and set priorities for the CRA. In an email, City Manager Mark Lauzier stressed that the CRA “is still independent,” with employees reporting to Executive Director Jeff Costello. He reports to the commission/CRA board, not to Lauzier.

Still, the goal is to align CRA and city spending. Lauzier said, “For the budget process, we have improved some on coordination but we are not fully integrated in our processes and procedures.”

There also is debate over CRA priorities. Commissioners agree that the focus should be on the northwest and southwest neighborhoods, but at the meeting Angeleta Gray wanted all spending to be on “bricks and mortar” while others also wanted to keep spending money on “economic development.”

Notably, Lauzier offered comment. Though state law requires that CRAs concern themselves mostly with eradicating blight, it also allows the agencies to spending money on complementary needs—such as economic development. Lauzier advocated for such spending even as he noted the potential threat from Tallahassee. Legislators this year nearly restricted such CRA spending. But my reading was that Lauzier encouraged as broad a mission for the CRA as possible and to not act defensively.

Gray raised another, important point. The CRA regularly talks about how much money the agency has budgeted for improvements to certain neighborhoods, in this case Osceola Park. The amount of money actually spent, however, is much lower. Why did $2 million in Osceola Park projects not get done?

Accordingly, Lauzier said the city and CRA are stressing a more coordinated effort not just on budgeting but also on “execution” of capital projects. As with the city, the CRA budget likely will get to the policymakers earlier next year. “The budgeting processes,” Lauzier said, “are still separate and coordination is attempted after each entity runs through their separate channels and each governing board reviews and approves their budgets. We are better, but not quite there.”

Alphabet city

Also at that Aug. 27 meeting, we heard that the CRA wants to reduce the acronyms that go with downtown Delray Beach.

There’s the CRA, of course, and then the DDA (Downtown Development Authority) and the DBMC (Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative.) Add the chamber of commerce, and that’s a lot of names.

The DDA levies a separate assessment and promotes downtown. The DBMC stages three popular downtown events—Fourth of July, the Christmas tree lighting and New Year’s Eve and also promotes the city as a whole. So the goal is to have the chamber of commerce absorb the marketing cooperative.

Such a shift, though, would mean the city taking over those three events. City Manager Mark Lauzier said that might happen next year, but the city isn’t ready yet. The events require much planning and lots of institutional knowledge. So the events will stay with the cooperative.

“I think we all support consolidation,” said City Commissioner Ryan Boylston, a former DDA chairman. “It was a good discussion. It’s hard for the city to jump in now, and we don’t want to disrupt these events.”

The discussion came as the commission/CRA allocated the annual spending on non-profits such as the cooperative ($106,000) and the chamber ($40,000). Old School Square got $750,000, and board members promised to hire a new director soon and to make fundraising the organization’s priority.

New principal for Addison Mizner

(Photo by Randy Schultz)

Boca Raton’s Addison Mizner Elementary is in the news for a different reason. The school will be getting a new principal.

Kelli Burke is moving to Olympic Heights High School, possibly by Monday. Principal changes this soon into the year are unusual but not unprecedented. The school will hold a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the cafeteria to hear from parents on the choice of a replacement for Burke.

Addison Mizner’s future location was debated for several months before Superintendent Donald Fennoy decided that the school would remain on Southwest 12th Avenue with a new campus financed by the sales tax surcharge and adding middle-school grades.

And more on the school…

During construction of the new campus, Addison Mizner students will use portable classrooms on the site of the proposed new elementary school next to Don Estridge Middle. The city donated the 15 acres.

Unfortunately, the state still hasn’t approved the new school—called O5C for planning purposes—even though the Palm Beach County School Board has approved the project and set aside money. Under Florida law, the state Board of Education has to sign off.

School board member Frank Barbieri told me Thursday that the state has asked the school district to submit a new application “with updated student enrollment numbers.” Those would be based on enrollment after the first 11 days of school.

It’s another example of Tallahassee usurping local control, but that’s been the norm on education for the last two decades. Barbieri believes that enrollment projections over the next five years will support the new school.

Delray memorial service

Delray Beach will hold a memorial service Tuesday on the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 8:30 ceremony will take place at Atlantic High School and is sponsored by the police department’s criminal justice academy and the school’s Junior ROTC program.

City litigation

I will report next week on the litigation against Boca Raton related to Midtown. Now I want to clarify the status of litigation against the city related to the city council’s rejection in July of the Concierge senior living project.

The developer, Group P6, has filed a challenge in circuit court to the denial. The landowner, Robert Buehl, has said that he intends to file a claim under the Bert Harris Act seeking between $50 million and $100 million in damages. As of Thursday, Buehl had not filed the claim.

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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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