Calmer Skies in Boca, More People and Money Are Coming

boca raton airport authority

 

The Trump effect

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President Trump has blown Mar-a-Lago for the summer. City politics are quiet. For now, there’s no turbulence at the Boca Raton Airport Authority.

That’s a change from two years ago. The city council had just named one of its own, Robert Weinroth, and Deputy City Manager George Brown to the authority board. It was the first time a council member and a top administrator had served on the governing board.

To the council, the move was necessary to change rules that had made the board too secretive. To others, the move hinted at a takeover by the city. As it turned out, Weinroth and Brown stayed for only a few months, until the board altered policies about how board members communicated with the council.

Notably, this year the board switched attorneys. Weinroth and his colleagues believed that the attorney at the time had crafted those policies to which the council objected. Also notably, Brown served on the committee that drew up the qualifications for the job. The authority now uses Lewis, Longman & Walker, a state firm based in West Palm Beach, and Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell, which has offices in Denver, Washington and New York.

But just as the authority was closing that chapter, Trump opened a new one. Everyone assumed that the new president would visit his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach every now and then. No one—certainly not Clara Bennett, the airport authority’s executive director, and her staff—assumed that he would spend 23 of his first 84 days in office at Mar-a-Lago.

Clara-Bennett
Boca Raton Airport Authority Executive Director Clara Bennett.

Because of flight restrictions that the Secret Service imposes within a 30-nautical mile outer circle of restricted airspace around the winter White House, many planes—especially private jets—that normally would have landed at Palm Beach International Airport diverted to Boca Raton. Bennett told me that traffic nearly doubled during a Trump visit, from about 200 to about 400 planes. The increase in traffic meant a corresponding increase in noise for residents who live northeast and southwest of the airport under the flight paths.

Also because of those restrictions, planes had to alter their usual takeoff pattern to the northeast. To avoid having jets violate the 10-mile inner circle of restricted airspace, pilots had to angle more to the east. “We had aircraft over homes that never see them,” Bennett said.

It was winter. People had their windows open. Noise complaints doubled. Neighborhoods to the southwest were used to the lower noise levels from landings, but the number of landings had doubled. “The calls were intense at first, “Bennett said. “It was an education issue. When we told them that it wasn’t a permanent change they weren’t happy, but they understood.”

For Bennett and Deputy Director Scott Kohut, the frustration is that they have almost no control over what will return as a problem with Trump, probably in November for Thanksgiving. Since they can’t change the rules for presidential visits, they will work to reduce noise when Trump isn’t at Mar-a-Lago. They also will try to alert nearby homeowners when Trump is coming and remind everyone about the rules.

Higher traffic did bring one benefit. Because the two fixed-base operators that service planes had much more business—“They were exhausted,” Kohut said—the airport got more in fees.

Elsewhere, Bennett expects that construction on the airport’s customs facility will be complete in late July. After that, Customs and Border Patrol comes in with its punch list. When the feds are satisfied—perhaps in September—the facility will be open from Thursday to Monday. Jets that now have to clear customs elsewhere can come directly to Boca Raton.

Customs facility at the Boca Raton Airport Authority.
Customs facility at the Boca Raton Airport Authority.

The facility should help the city’s image as a place to do business. Certainly, the regional demand is there. Bennett notes that Fort Lauderdale Executive, where she worked previously, is the busiest non-commercial customs airport in the country. Bennett expects about 700 airplane clearings and 200 boat clearings a year. The facility isn’t planned as a profit center. Bennett said fees will be designed to have the authority “eventually break even.”

In addition, the airport is starting the second phase of safety upgrades at each end of the runway. Known as EMAS—Engineered Material Arresting System—it greatly reduces the danger if planes overshoot or come in too low. The north end was first. Now comes the south end. The runway itself also is getting rehab work.

Looking back at that turbulent period two years ago, Bennett says the authority “is much stronger for it.” Her comment is probably both diplomatic and accurate, but I wanted to ask about one other issue that came up in 2015: the authority’s new headquarters.

Some council members had wondered whether the move made financial sense. Bennett said the authority is paying $30,000 a year to lease the building while taking in $750,000 in lease payments from the old space.

Stronger indeed.

Airport Authority board

The city council fills five of the seven seats on the airport authority board. The county commission fills the other two. The commission just reappointed Cheryl Budd and will decide Tuesday on Tom Thayer, who has applied for another term.

When the council last month named Jack Fox to fill a vacancy, it amounted to a jab at BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro. Two years ago, he filed an ethics complaint against Fox, then serving on the board, regarding Fox’s ownership of a plane and a hangar at the airport. The Florida Commission on Ethics rejected the recommendation of its advocate and found no probable cause to proceed. Fox, who had resigned from the board, and Zucaro later ripped at each other at council meetings.

Three candidates sought appointment to the vacant seat. Fox had support from Mayor Susan Haynie and council members Jeremy Rodgers and Scott Singer.

Rising property values

In Boca Raton and Delray Beach, population and property values continue in the right direction.

According to new data from the Census Bureau, Boca Raton gained 2,750 residents between mid-2015 and mid-2016. As of roughly a year ago, the city’s population was 96,114. That’s an increase of almost 14 percent since the start of the last decade.

The pace in Delray Beach was nearly the same. The city added almost 1,200 people year over year, raising the population to 67,371. Delray Beach’s increase since 2010 is 11.3 percent.

Like long-timers in both cities, those new residents will want excellent services. Paying for them depends mostly on property taxes. There will be more revenue for the 2017-18 budgets. Nearly final property rolls released this week show that Boca Raton’s taxable value—the highest in the county—increased 7.1 percent from last year, to $22.5 billion. Delray Beach increased to $9.6 billion, or 9.2 percent. City staffers, however, have not calculated how much of that came within the community redevelopment agency and thus must stay with the CRA.

Sales tax

Money also is flowing to Boca Raton and Delray Beach from the one-cent sales increase that voters approved last November. This money, however, can’t go for operating expenses. Cities must spend it on infrastructure.

Through March, Boca Raton had collected about $1.5 million, on sales within the county and sales of goods shipped to the county. Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus said Delray Beach had received about $1 million over the same period. Both totals are in line with county projections. Analysts had forecast that Boca Raton would receive between $52 million and $61.5 million over the 10 years the tax will be levied. The projection for Delray Beach was between $37.7 million and $44.5 million.

Boca Raton has created an account to hold the money until the council decides how to spend it. Unlike Boca, Delray Beach has a backlog of capital projects and is moving quickly to leverage the revenue. De Jesus said the city will issue a 10-year revenue bond based on getting slightly less than $3 million a year. That’s a very conservative approach, but sales taxes can drop quickly if the economy slows down.

De Jesus hopes to present the bond proposal to the city commission for review and approval at the June 20 meeting. Bond revenue, he said, won’t pay for all items on the city’s project list. The balance will come from the capital improvement plan, the CRA and the utility fund.

Raise for de Jesus

Since we’re speaking of Delray Beach and money, de Jesus is up for a raise on Tuesday. On the commission agenda is an item to raise his salary to $200,000.

De Jesus remains the interim manager, having taken over for Don Cooper at the end of last year. It was first thought that he would oversee the choice of a permanent manager. His extended stay, however, remains amicable to de Jesus and the commission. Certainly there’s no reason to start a search now, with the preliminary budget due in a few weeks. With every month, though, it looks more likely that de Jesus will lose that adjective in his title.

McAuliffe is back

Talk about getting into a race early.

Former Palm Beach County State Attorney Michael McAuliffe filed this week to run for the Group 13 circuit court state. David French is the incumbent, but he is not expected to seek re-election next year.

McAuliffe served as state attorney from 2008 until early 2012. He resigned to become general counsel for Oxbow, the West Palm Beach energy company run William Koch. His brothers, Charles and David Koch, are well known for their support of Republican candidates and political organizations. McAuliffe is a Democrat, but judicial races in Florida are non-partisan.

If he wins, McAuliffe and his wife would form quite the power couple. Robin Rosenberg is a federal judge who hears cases in West Palm Beach and Fort Pierce. President Obama nominated her to the federal bench. McAuliffe is the first candidate to file for one of the 13 circuit court seats that come up next year. The terms are for six years.


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