Sunday, May 22, 2022

New Delray Commission Takes Over CRA Board at First Meeting and Other City Business Notes

In one way, the Delray Beach City Commission’s vote Tuesday night to take over the community redevelopment agency should not have come as a surprise.

Last year, a takeover failed by just one vote. Last summer, the commission appointed four board members—a majority—after stating repeatedly that the commission wanted more progress on West Atlantic Avenue redevelopment and other issues. The commission thus put the CRA on notice.

And last month, at 2 a.m.—after the marathon meeting on Midtown—Commissioner Shirley Ervin Johnson asked her colleagues to revisit the CRA. Johnson made clear that she was impatient with the CRA board. Then-Mayor Cary Glickstein said that if he wasn’t about to leave office, he would bring back the CRA issue. New Mayor Shelly Petrolia voted for the takeover last year.

Also last month, the CRA twice debated the agency’s property east of the Fairfield Inn. Those three blocks have been controversial since the CRA board in 2013 chose a developer who proposed the mixed-use Uptown Delray project but couldn’t get financing, thus costing the agency three years. Even after two discussions in March, the board still hadn’t finalized the plan to advertise the site. That was to take another month.

Yet Tuesday was the new commission’s first regular meeting. Putting such a major item on the first agenda was the municipal equivalent of how NASCAR starts its season—with the Daytona 500, the biggest race of the year.

Though the request came last week, the item wasn’t on the commission’s online agenda as of Monday afternoon. The commission had held no discussions with the CRA board. There is no plan for how to operate the agency. As some residents said, no candidate in the March election had campaigned on abolishing the CRA board.

Still, if the commission was going to make this decision, one could argue that sooner was better. The commission holds its goal-setting meetings at the end of the month. City and CRA staff members are drawing up budgets. City Manager Mark Lauzier will need as much time as possible to mesh operations.

When discussion of the takeover began, Johnson took the lead. She called her 2017 vote against the takeover “my biggest mistake” in her first year. Johnson said the CRA had “made promises since 1986” to develop the areas north and south of West Atlantic Avenue between Swinton Avenue and Interstate 95. Those are the city’s main minority neighborhoods. “I live in that neighborhood,” said Johnson, the commission’s only African-American. “We all have failed that promise.”

Johnson added, “All we have is the Fairfield Inn. It’s time to hit the reset button.”

Petrolia and commissioners Bill Bathurst and Adam Frankel agreed. Ryan Boylston dissented. He acknowledged that trying to produce change through a new board could take all three years of his term, but said there hadn’t been enough notice. “I could get on board,” he told me Wednesday, “but I wanted a plan.”

At last year’s goal-setting session, the previous commission unanimously made West Atlantic the city’s redevelopment priority. The new commission finally ran out of patience and is ready to move. As of Wednesday, the CRA website already showed the commission as the board.

(Photo above, Mayor Shelly Petrolia is sworn in at city hall with her family.)

So now what?

So what happens now with the Delray Beach CRA?

City commissioners have many basic decisions to make: Will they comprise the board themselves—that’s how Boca Raton does it—or will they appoint two advisory board members? Boynton Beach has used that structure, and Bathurst said the commission should consider that. When will they meet as the CRA? Will they keep the every-other-Thursday schedule or change it?

What happens to CRA Director Jeff Costello and the roughly dozen other staff members? Will the commission keep Costello? Will the CRA director have the title of assistant city manager? Will the city attorney now become the CRA attorney? The jobs have been separate. Will Petrolia also run CRA meetings? Or will one of the commissioners serve as CRA chairman and do so?

And how long with the commission serve as the CRA board? Commissioner Frankel favored a short-term switch. City Attorney Max Lohman said the commission couldn’t set a timeframe, but he added that the change likely would have to be for at least year “to pass the straight-face test.” Otherwise, the commission would appear to be simply replacing the CRA board.

Boca Raton’s method—all elected officials—is the structure for most CRAs statewide. It provides the greatest accountability because elected officials, not unelected appointees, make the big decisions. Other than that, however, Boca Raton may not offer much for comparison.

In Boca, the CRA covers only downtown. There is no CRA director, City Manager Leif Ahnell having abolished the position a decade ago. Downtown also is not Boca Raton’s main source of property tax revenue.

Delray Beach’s CRA boundaries, however, include 20 percent of the city and the city’s most valuable property. Because increased tax revenue must stay within the CRA, city commissioners have been frustrated that too little money goes for projects outside the boundaries.

The city commission will begin to discuss options at a workshop meeting next Tuesday. Those who criticized Lauzier’s $235,000 salary as excessive may want to reconsider. His job just got a lot bigger.

And budget notes

I don’t know if his comments swayed any votes, but former Delray Beach Chief Financial Officer Jack Warner spoke Tuesday night in favor of the takeover.

Warner said the move makes sense from a budget standpoint. He noted that city staff twice recommended a takeover, to give the city more control over its finances.

And, Warner said, if things don’t seem to be working out, the commission always could change back.

The anti-Semitic accusation

I also don’t know if this swayed any votes, but Frankel criticized what he described as “anti-Semitic” posts shared on Facebook by Reggie Cox, who served as chairman of the CRA board when it was independent.

Frankel said the posts related to Jews investing in African-American neighborhoods. Cox was one of several now former CRA board members who spoke Tuesday night against the takeover.

So now it’s yours

One final thought on the Delray Beach CRA:

Colin Powell famously applied the Pottery Barn Rule to George W. Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq: You break it, you’ve bought it. The commission now owns redevelopment of West Atlantic Avenue. There’s no more CRA board to blame.

Boca post office move

Photo by Christiana Lilly
Photo by Christiana Lilly

I wrote Tuesday about Boca Raton’s downtown post office near Mizner Park. The U.S. Postal Service may move the facility because of a lease dispute.

At last week’s meeting, Postal Service official Damien Salazar said the agency prefers 10-year leases. Investments Limited, which owns the downtown site, has offered a four-year lease.

The Postal Service has two other facilities in the city. A spokeswoman said the agency owns the post office on Military Trail near Lynn University. The other facility, which is on Palmetto Park Road, has a 10-year lease that the spokeswoman said expires “soon.” The renewal term, she said, is for five years.

On Tuesday, an Investments Limited representative and Salazar were supposed to meet. As of Thursday afternoon, the meeting hadn’t happened.

Delray power poles

There’s more information about the 55-foot power poles that have appeared in downtown Delray Beach.

On Tuesday, City Manager Mark Lauzier sent a follow-up to his first email, which reported that FPL had not pulled permits for the work. Lauzier said FPL representatives would come to the April 17 city commission meeting “to further inform the community” about this and future company projects.

As residents suspected, the poles are to serve Atlantic Crossing. Lauzier said, though, that FPL was planning to harden downtown portions of its grid in two years. So the company decided to do the upgrades simultaneously.

But what happens to the seven concrete poles? Residents want the lines underground. Lauzier said “legal hurdles” related to easements could pose problems. Wooden poles might look better, but Lauzier said that option would add between four and seven poles overall to achieve the necessary hardening against hurricanes. Other historic areas of the city are getting concrete poles.

Lauzier said staff would review procedures for large projects to make sure that utilities and developer “are not just taking the easiest and cheapest paths.”

Lake Wyman/Rutherford Park makeover

At Monday’s workshop meeting, the Boca Raton City Council must make a decision on the Lake Wyman/Rutherford Park makeover.

At a recent community meeting, residents made clear that they do not want motorized boat launches at Lake Wyman/Rutherford. If council members agree, they must tell the city’s consultant. That decision would affect plans for the downtown Wildflower property and Silver Palm Park, which has the city’s motorized launch.

During discussion of the Wildflower, the city’s waterfront consultant urged the council to buy the former site of Maxwell’s Chop House. It’s between the Wildflower and Northeast Fifth Avenue. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke asked whether the owner—who regularly has rebuffed requests to sell—might donate the property, perhaps getting naming rights.

According to a city spokeswoman, the answer to the idea of donating was no. Hell, no, most likely.

Downtown campus ideas update scheduled

Also on Monday, the council will get an update from the city’s consultant on the proposed downtown government/civic campus for Boca Raton. Song and Associates will summarize the ideas so far and ask council members which approach they prefer.

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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