Delray Beach Updates: Fire Contract, New Water Plant, Gas Station & More

Delray Beach will not give Highland Beach a price break on the town’s fire-rescue contract.

During Tuesday’s workshop meeting, city commissioners supported Chief Keith Tomey’s breakdown of the agreement. They also agreed that, as usual in June, he should send Highland Beach an estimate of the cost for next year. In December, as usual, Delray Beach will “true up” the numbers and determine the actual cost.

Highland Beach commissioners believe that the town is paying too much. They hired a consultant to advise on options. Tomey disputed the consultant’s findings.

Among other things, Tomey disagreed that Delray Beach could find $1 million in savings. He stated that the consultant “grossly underestimated” the cost of Highland Beach starting its own department, which would include two vehicles for the town of roughly 4,000 residents.

In addition, Tomey said the Delray Beach contract allows Highland Beach to punch far above its demographic weight. The deal provides the town with investigative services, a mutual aid compact and a public information officer, all of which the town would not have otherwise. Highland Beach also has access to vehicles designed to fight fires in the town’s many high-rises.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia again called Highland Beach’s criticism “shortsighted.” She added that Delray Beach is “not making money” on the contract, which creates “a lot of hassle” for the city. Commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel agreed.

The contract runs through 2026. Either side can leave early with three years notice. Highland Beach has scheduled further discussion for Tuesday’s meeting.

Delray water plant

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Delray Beach needs a new water plant.

After all the city’s recent problems, that statement might not come as a surprise. But Utilities Director Hassan Hajidmiry made it official at Tuesday’s workshop meeting.

To all of Delray Beach’s other infrastructure needs, add roughly $60 million. That’s what Hajidmiry estimated to be the “sweet spot” for a plant that can supply the city’s needs. Delray Beach has almost 70,000 residents. The current plant was built in 1952, when the population was roughly 6,500.

How will the city pay for it? Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez listed four potential sources: higher rates, bonds, public-private partnerships and grants.

Utilities departments are enterprise funds, meaning that they are self-supporting and don’t rely on taxes. As with the general fund, Delray Beach has a utility reserve. But Alvarez said it isn’t large enough to finance the plant, though it might pay for a portion.

So the city will conduct a study of water rates and ask a consultant to update its 2019 report on water use projections. Meanwhile, Delray Beach waits to hear what state officials decide about the draft report proposing that the city be fined $3 million for failing to protect the safety of its drinking water.

Gas station denied

Last week, the Delray Beach City Commission denied the request for a 20-pump RaceTrac gas station on the southwest corner of Congress and Atlantic avenues.

The developer’s attorney contended that the project would bring needed investment to the area. Boylston countered that investment already is coming, citing the Aura Delray residential project on the intersection’s northwest corner. The nearby expansion of the county’s PalmTran service, Boylston said, also will bring jobs.

Boylston and Frankel also disagreed that the developer had met the needed conditions for approval. Two gas stations already are at that intersection, and Frankel said no intersection in the city has three stations. Juli Casale worried about the “stability” of the neighborhood.

Almost everyone praised RaceTrac stations in general. Only Petrolia, however, wanted one there.

Delray commission exchange

A small but important exchange took place at the end of that same Delray Beach City Commission meeting.

Casale wanted approval of a coastal habitat project. She had raised the issue previously and asked if there was “consensus.”

Boylston responded that the project amounted to a “six-figure” addition to the budget. He asked Alvarez to explain to Casale that things don’t work that way. Alvarez agreed, noting that such an expense would require amending the budget. “Consensus” to consider such an item does not mean spending approval.

Delray Beach and Boca Raton operate under the manager-commission form of government. Elected officials, even the mayors, can’t dictate spending on their own. Boylston gave Casale a needed tutorial.

Goal-setting meetings to resume

Boca Raton and Delray Beach intend to resume the annual goal-setting meetings that both cities cancelled last year because of the pandemic.

Boca Raton’s will take place May 12-14 from 8:30 to 5:30 p.m. each day. Council members are still meeting virtually. A spokeswoman said Delray Beach has not finalized the details for its meetings.

In addition, Delray Beach is inviting comments about the city’s five-year capital improvement program. Discussion will take place during Monday’s planning and zoning board meeting. It also will be virtual.

Residents can email comments beforehand to pzmail@mydelraybeach.com and can call during the hearing to 561/243-7556.

Delray’s new finance director

As Delray Beach enters its 10th month with an interim city manager, the city has filled a key position.

John Lege is the new finance director. With budget planning ramping up, he replaces Marie Kalka, who had been on the job barely a year before leaving in January for a similar position in San Marcos, Texas, near Austin.

Lege had been assistant city manager in Sarasota until resigning in mid-February. Lege told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that after a new city commission appointed a new city manager, he no longer saw himself “playing a part” in the city’s future. The deputy city manager also had resigned, along with other top administrators.

Boca’s new city clerk

This week’s Boca Raton City Council meetings sounded very different.

Reading the agenda items and calling the roll was Mary Siddons. She became city clerk last week after the retirement of Susan Saxton.

During her 12 years as clerk, Saxton’s soothing play-by-play voice (“The motion passes, five votes to zero”) became identified with the council chambers. That was especially true over the last year, as meetings went virtual. 

50 Years of JLBR

The Junior League of Boca Raton turns 50 this year. To celebrate the milestone, the League will hold a gala at The Addison on Sep. 23.

According to a news release, League members have donated more than one million hours of volunteer service over the last half-century. Each year, the League donates $250,000 toward charitable causes.

Such is the League’s profile in Boca Raton that at least two former volunteers have used the organization as a springboard to politics. Susan Whelchel became a city council member and then mayor. Yvette Drucker was elected to the council in March.

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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.