Takeaways From the Homeowners Debate and Other News of Note

Here are some thoughts from the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowners candidate debate, which I moderated last Thursday evening. It’s important that candidates have a basic understanding of a city, but let’s not overestimate the importance of longevity.

1. Kathy Cottrell and Tamara McKee tried to outdo each other during Thursday’s debate in claiming to have lived in Boca Raton longer.

McKee criticized their Seat A opponent, Andy Thomson, for having lived in the city a much shorter time. Decades of residency, though, don’t automatically make someone a good candidate. The key factors are intelligence, acquired knowledge, ideas and ethics. I’ve heard many long-time Boca Raton residents make absurd comments during council meetings. I’ve heard short-timers make much more sense. Residency alone is overrated.

2. Mayor Scott Singer and his challenger, BocaWatch publisher Al Zucaro, disagreed on almost everything. One issue was the city’s emergency fund.

Zucaro said the city is keeping what he said is between $300 million and $400 million in reserves. Singer said Zucaro had the number wrong and that the real reserve fund is about the right amount.

I decided to check, because Zucaro’s figure seemed very high to me. Well-run cities tend to maintain a reserve fund of between 15 percent and 20 percent of the general operating budget, which for this year in Boca Raton is about $207 million.

According to city figures, the reserve fund is roughly $38 million, with roughly one-third of that allocated for hurricane response. That amount would put the city right in line with the accepted standard. Maintaining a healthy reserve keeps borrowing costs low, and Boca Raton has the highest bond rating available—AAA.

I asked Zucaro where he got his figure. “The budget document,” he emailed back, though he couldn’t recall any specifics and said he couldn’t check because he would be at the library all day for the start of early voting.

Perhaps Zucaro added figures from all emergency funds, such as those for water and sewer. But those budgets run on fees, not taxes. Draining those reserves could be even riskier, and the council couldn’t shift those funds to boost other services or to lower the tax rate.

This might sound like a wonky issue, but nothing matters more in a city than its budget. From what I can tell, Singer was right on this point.

3. At the request of federation members, I asked whether Boca Raton should start a program to eradicate iguanas. They are plaguing many neighborhoods. Ocean Ridge has started a program.

All candidates agreed, though Singer said the city should work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rather than go it alone. The agency has started its own program

4. Bernard Korn shows why Boca Raton needs tougher qualifying standards for elected office.

Korn may be running for mayor, but mostly he’s running for attention. Korn wore a campaign T-shirt to the debate—Singer and Zucaro wore jackets and ties— and worried more about getting laughs than getting votes.

Korn filed a declaration of domicile in April. It allows him to claim residency and thus be eligible to run. The city depends on the candidate being truthful about his or her residency. Korn’s took much time to run down.

The council previously had talked about raising the residency requirement. Currently, candidates must have lived in the city only for 30 days and must pay $25.

Council members discussed raising the residency requirement to a year, which seems about right. Candidates also should have to show proof of residency.

But council members also discussed a requirement that candidates obtain petition signatures, to show that they had some public support. Gathering signatures, though, can take time and could confuse new candidates. A better approach could be to raise the filing fee.

Candidates for county and state office can make the ballot by petition or by paying 4 percent of the salary as a filing fee. With the higher salaries Boca Raton voters approved in 2016, that would be $1,120 for council and $1,520 for mayor.

Whatever the decision, the council must strike a balance on ballot access. No more vanity candidates.

5. Zucaro opposes a downtown campus with a new City Hall, expanded community center and perhaps a performing arts center. That makes him an outlier on this issue. All the other candidates favor the concept.

Remember that for all the talk by candidates of big projects, much of the effort to run a city well is hidden.

It’s the sort of work and investment that keeps water and sewer services operating during and after a hurricane, as Boca Raton did after Irma last year and after Wilma in 2005. In addition, candidates can profess love for a city, but that level of dedication becomes apparent only under certain circumstances.

Steve Abrams never imagined when he was elected Boca Raton’s mayor that he would confront an anthrax attack on a city office building. As the city’s goal-setting facilitator said, these days any mayor can find himself or herself on the wrong side of a national story.

Lauzier and the Delray budget

Boca Raton has not released its proposed 2018-19 budget, but City Manager Mark Lauzier will discuss his document for Delray Beach during tonight’s city commission workshop.

Commissioners had complained that Lauzier’s predecessors didn’t get the preliminary budget to them in time for debate and possible changes. Two budget hearings are scheduled for September. The budget year begins Oct. 1. Lauzier has broken down the document into categories: the tax rate, fees, employee benefits and spending levels citywide and by department.

Lauzier said the budget sets “realistic expectations.” Fire Chief Neal de Jesus, who served as interim manager before Lauzier began last fall, regularly cautioned commissioners against adding priorities before current projects had been completed. Lauzier also intends to improve service levels and address “organizational deficiencies.”

Lauzier wants the commission to give him a $2 million contingency fund that he could use on short notice. As part of improving what he calls Delray Beach’s “crumbling infrastructure,” Lauzier wants to upgrade the water and systems. He proposes $2 million to harden Fire Station 3 against hurricanes, $2 million for renovation of the historic train depot and $1.5 million for Phase II of the public beach master plan.

With the commission having abolished the community redevelopment agency board, this is the first year of the manager being able to coordinate CRA spending and city spending. From the CRA budget would come $13 million for work in Osceola Park and nearly $9 million for work elsewhere within the CRA boundaries.

Another CRA request is $1.8 million for the annual pro tennis event. That’s an increase of $800,000 from last year. The commission has sued the event’s promoter, seeking to get out of the 25-year contract, but not much is happening on the litigation. The city wants to amend the complaint, and City Attorney Max Lohman told me Monday that “scheduling issues” have delayed it. While the lawsuit continues, Delray Beach remains obligated to follow the contract.

Per the commission’s wish, the budget cuts the tax rate by an amount that will save the owner of a $300,000 homesteaded residence $30 next year. As I have written, however, a voter-approved increase in the homestead exemption could prevent a similar cut in two years.

Delray CRA funding requests

During meetings on Wednesday, the Delray Beach Community Development Agency will discuss the annual budget requests from non-profit agencies. City commissioners, who now serve as the CRA board, regularly have questioned such spending, but they always wind up approving it.

This year’s requests include $458,000 for the city library, $80,000 for Epoch/Spady Museum and the Delray Beach Community Land Trust, $70,000 for the Delray Beach Historical Society and $62,250 for the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce. Creative City Collaborative wants $275,000 for Arts Garage, the same amount as last year.

This year, the Florida Legislature came close to prohibiting such spending by CRAs. It will new Legislature with new leaders after the November election, but Delray Beach officials will be wary of a second attempt. Such a change would shift nearly $1 million to the city budget.

Chabad again

It’s been three years since beachside residents howled about Chabad East Boca. A state lawsuit overturned council approval of the project. A federal lawsuit has failed at the district and appeals court levels. A dispute over the property has delayed application for a new project.

Yet those residents won’t give up. At a recent city council meeting, Riviera Civic Association President Kevin Meaney raised the idea of prohibiting “public assembly” uses on East Palmetto Park Road between the bridge and A1A. The property in question is along that stretch.

That change would prevent any place of worship, a use that falls into that “public assembly” category. Meaney said his group plans “to revisit” the idea.

“We want to be ahead of the curve,” he said.

Anti-Semitism fouled that debate in 2015. Would there have been similar opposition if a Christian group had proposed a project that was less intense than other legal uses of the property? Banning places of worship and similar uses would seem to be less about maintaining what Meaney called the “unique” character of beachside neighborhoods and more about discrimination.

School’s In!

Happily, the first day of a new world for Palm Beach County public schools went well on Monday.

It’s the first full school year since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting and the resulting legislation on school safety. Frank Barbieri, the school board member who represents Boca Raton, Delray Beach and the western areas, acknowledged that it had seem like an even shorter summer than usual.

But Barbieri visited 11 schools on Monday and told me that parents “were OK” with the many new safety protocols. Though mothers and fathers whose children are attending school for the first time didn’t like not being able to walk their kids to the classroom door, “They understood it,” Barbieri said.

The new security is visible. Barbieri said guards were at the gates of Spanish River and Olympic Heights high schools. Visitors must show an ID and state their business. It’s all new, and designed to ease post-Parkland fears. We will see how things develop over the year and whether everyone continues to be “OK” with it.

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