Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Politics Behind Delray’s New Fire Contract, Boca Development Updates and More

Politics has become part of almost everything that the Delray Beach City Commission does. The latest example is the fire-rescue contract.

Firefighters had been working without a contract since Oct. 1, when the previous three-year deal expired. Negotiations had continued until city staff presented a new three-year agreement at the March 2 meeting. It would be retroactive to last October.

Commissioners had participated in several closed meetings to discuss the contract. They had received updates from Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez and City Attorney Lynn Gelin. Commissioner Ryan Boylston told me Monday that the city and the International Association of Firefighters had agreed on “90 or 95 percent” of the terms in December.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia, however, complained that she and commissioners had received the nearly 130-page contract only one day before the meeting. She asked for a delay. So the commission held a special meeting about the contract on March 4, five days before the election.

The deal proposed no changes during the first year, which is halfway over. For the second and third years, the contract proposed no new hires but the addition of lieutenants for each rescue unit—higher-paid existing positions—and raises for other department employees. In addition, the union agreed to wider drug and alcohol testing, including random drug testing for the first time.

According to the staff memo, the changes would add roughly $4.1 million in expenses during those three years. Changes to pension rules would save the city nearly $1 million during the contract and $11.2 million over 30 years, the period actuaries use to judge the solvency of public pension funds.

Boylston, Adam Frankel and Shirley Johnson voted for the contract. Petrolia and Juli Casale voted against it. That’s the summary. Here’s the politics.

The firefighters union had endorsed Boylston and Frankel, whom Petrolia was trying to defeat. The union also had endorsed Petrolia’s opponent, Tracey Caruso.

So to Petrolia, the contract was a union money grab at the city’s expense. Juli Casale, who regularly follows the mayor’s lead, agreed. She called the contract “a burden” and claimed that approval would be “digging a hole” that “the residents” would have to fill.

Boylston responded with his assertion that the union actually gave up more than the city did. He told me that the union’s first demand had been an $8 million increase and that random drug testing had been a significant concession. Boylston added that the new contract doesn’t make the department among the three best paying in Palm Beach County, which had been the commission’s goal.

Boylston also noted that Petrolia and Casale had voted to nearly triple their salaries. If that raise was good enough for the commission, what about the firefighters?

Did the city get a fair deal? If the pension savings materialize, Delray Beach will benefit. In 2017, the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University gave the firefighters pension fund a grade of D for solvency.

As for the new benefits, that likely depends on one’s view of the department. In 2014, Delray Beach considered and rejected a merger with Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, so competition for employees is an issue. So is turnover. The department has 165 firefighter positions—all the way up to chief—and nine current vacancies. The COVID-19 pandemic followed the opioid epidemic that taxed the department as never before.

With Delray on its third interim manager in the last four years, one could argue that stable, high-quality fire and police departments have been even more important. What should be the cost of that assurance?

That’s a reasonable question. But posturing by Petrolia and Casale crowded out any such nuanced discussion. Casale kept talking about how she was defending “the residents,” even as Alvarez and Fire Chief Keith Tomey challenged some of her comments about the contract. “I’m not buying your theory,” Tomey said at one point.

Petrolia called the process “flawed” and vowed to pursue a change that would prevent contract discussions close to an election. The contract had been “ramrodded,” Petrolia fumed, and aimed at her. In fact, Boylston said, he had posted on social media after each of what he recalled as six rounds of negotiations. 

The mayor turned discussion about a major issue into a discussion about herself and her opponents. That is the state of Delray Beach politics.

Boca Trinity property

trinity church

The Boca Raton property that neighbors had hoped might become a park will remain home to a church.

Trinity Church of God, which had been on Southwest 12th Avenue in Palm Beach Farms for almost four decades, had announced that it would close, along with the Rainbow of Love preschool. The 5.2-acre site could be rezoned for development that would allow roughly 20 homes.

But nearby residents proposed that Boca Raton buy it, even though Pine Breeze Park is a short distance away. In January 2020, the city offered $1 million. The market value was about $5 million. It was a token offer.

Last month, Trinity closed on a $4.05 million sale to St. Luke Coptic Orthodox Church. According to the denomination’s website, St. Mark established the Coptic Church in 43 A.D. The church in Boca Raton will be in the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States, which includes 60 churches in 11 states. There is another Coptic church west of Delray Beach.

Camino Square near construction

The Camino Square project in Boca Raton is drawing closer toward construction.

Last week, the city council approved the abandonment of a sliver of land along Camino Real that’s part of the Fresh Market shopping center just west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. Having that land will allow FCI Residential to make road improvements.

When council members approved FCI’s proposal for 350 apartments on the former Winn-Dixie plaza along Southwest Third Avenue, they conditioned that approval on FCI paying for those improvements. They are designed to ease traffic at the potential bottleneck of Camino Real and Second Avenue.

Because Camino Real is a county road, the county must approve FCI’s plans. The FEC also is involved. On Monday, a company representative told me that FCI has submitted its design and hired a contractor. “We are very close to approval.” The site has been cleared. The last blighted area in Boca Raton is nearing redevelopment.

COVID money abuse?

You may have read stories about alleged abuse in South Florida of money from the COVID-19 relief bill. Why would that surprise anyone who has lived here for any amount of time?

Yet at least on the county level, one agency is checking. The Office of Inspector General released a report tracking money that went to local businesses from the county. That money was part of the county’s $261 million share of the relief bill that Congress passed last March.

About $115,000 went to companies in Boca Raton, to be used for payroll, utilities and rent. Another $20,000 went to companies in Delray Beach. The inspector general’s office found that roughly 80 percent of the companies qualified and followed the rules. On the others, the office will investigate further.

Let’s hope that such scrutiny happens at every level.

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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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