Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Delray Plans for New Water Plant & More Old School Square Fallout

Delray Beach is about to start fixing its water problem.

During last week’s budget workshop meeting, Utilities Director Hassan Hajidmiry laid out for the city commission a five-year plan to build a new plant and replace all residential and commercial water meters. The city faces a $1.8 million fine from the Florida Department of Health related to water quality violations over 13 years.

First will come a study of Delray Beach’s water rates, which Hajidmiry said rank among the lowest five percent of cities in Florida. Rates will rise to pay for the plant. Utilities departments run on revenue from the services they provide—known as enterprise funds—not property taxes.

The city almost must conduct a feasibility study. Both studies are necessary before Delray Beach can issue a revenue bond—based on water fees—to pay for the plant. The city also will seek grants for construction, but residents and business owners likely will pay most of the cost.

Hajidmiry hopes that the city can issue the bonds in 2023 and begin design. From his presentation, the most optimistic date for the plant to start operating is 2025. The new meters would come a year later. The current ones were installed in 2015. If the city doesn’t replace them every 10 years, Hajidmiry said, they tend to read low.

In addition to that fine, the health department wants Delray Beach to issue a public notice that the city can’t vouch for the safety of its water between 2007 and 2020. Attorneys for Delray Beach and the state are negotiating a proposed final consent order that the city commission would have to approve.

Budget meeting extra

Shelly Petrolia has been Delray Beach’s mayor since 2018 and spent five years before that on the city commission. Yet at that budget meeting, she seemed not to understand the basics of municipal finance.

Petrolia stated that “the taxpayers” had been paying for the water plant through property taxes. Hajidmiry and City Manager Terrence Moore diplomatically corrected her, noting—as stated above—that user fees finance the plant’s operation, as they will finance construction of a new plant.

More fallout for OSS decision—from significant donor

delray cra

The Delray Beach City Commission has received more criticism about its decision to terminate the lease with Old School Square for the Arts. This criticism comes from a very credible source.

That would be Margaret Blume, who donated $1.4 million for the Crest Theater renovation that became a point of controversy with the commission. Work has stopped. As with almost everything about Old School Square, what happens now is uncertain.

Between this donation and her previous gift to renovate the Cornell Museum, Blume has given $2.4 million to the city’s arts and culture hub. She did so “because I was confident that Old School Square Center for the Arts would continue to deliver quality programs and education to fulfill my commitment” and so both facilities could “provide a stream of revenue to make (Old School Square) be more financially solvent.”

Blume wrote, “It has taken (Old School Square) years of experience and dedication to make it run so well. It will take a significant amount of time, effort, and funds to get the property minimally operational.” Because of the decision, “The heart and soul of (Old School Square) and Delray Beach have been broken.”

Critics of the decision have argued that the city couldn’t simply replace Old School Square for the Arts with a management company because the group has a long list of donors and volunteers. The feelings among them are very personal.

“I am astounded,” Blume said, “that a gift of this magnitude has been handled this way. It’s a harsh and detrimental message that you are sending to me and future private donors.” She added, “Be advised that money that I donated for the completion of the Crest Theater project is no longer available. This gift will no longer be serving the purposes for which it was intended.

“The attorneys at National Philanthropic Trust are currently involved regarding this matter.”

Congressional districting

Based on preliminary data from the Census Bureau, the fight over congressional redistricting in Florida may not involve Palm Beach County.

The state will gain one House seat, likely in the Orlando area. Though all areas of the state grew between 2010 and 2020, Central Florida grew the most.

Since Republicans control the Legislature, which will draw new maps, they will ensure that the new seat is GOP-friendly. Map-drawing creates a water-bed effect, displacing voters and reshaping other districts.

The average population of Florida’s 27 congressional districts is about 770,000. Some in Central Florida are way above that or just under. Removing or adding voters makes it easier for the party in charge to gerrymander.

Democrats Ted Deutch (District 22) and Lois Frankel (District 21) represent most of Palm Beach County. Deutch’s district includes Boca Raton. Frankel’s includes Delray Beach. Both districts have slightly fewer than 800,000 people. So does District 18, which includes the northern part of the county. Republican Brian Mast is the incumbent.

Nothing will be certain until Tallahassee approves the maps and the courts resolve any challenges, as happened after the last round of redistricting. Based on those early numbers, however, the partisan congressional fight may go on outside of Palm Beach County.

The Cernech case

The man who might have been Delray Beach’s city manager faces a criminal charge.

State prosecutors charged Michael Cernech, the city manager in Tamarac, with attempting to extort $3.4 million from a business competitor of Bruce and Shaun Chait. The father and son have a long and checkered history in Tamarac and in Broward County politics. They face extortion and racketeering charges.

In 2019, the Delray Beach City Commission chose Cernech to succeed Mark Lauzier. But Mayor Shelly Petrolia, who had preferred George Gretsas, entered the negotiations and caused Cernech to back out. The commission then hired Gretsas, whom Petrolia led the effort to fire last year.

On Tuesday night, the Tamarac City Commission fired Cernech with cause. He thus loses nearly $350,000 in compensation. Cernech’s attorney said his client was acting in the city’s interest. Prosecutors did not make clear how Cernech could have benefited from the alleged scheme.

Cernech previously had refused to dispute reporting by the Sun Sentinel about stealth attempts by some commissioners to increase their benefits. The commission renewed his contract in May.

Time to think about water safety

After what happened Sunday, it will be interesting to see whether Delray Beach gets interested again in bad behavior on the Intracoastal Waterway.

A boat crashed into a seawall in Highland Beach. Fire-rescue units from Delray Beach and Boca Raton responded. Delray Beach officials previously had tried to create a no-wake zone on one stretch of the waterway.

The Florida Inland Navigation District controls the Intracoastal. Boca Raton reminds everyone of that every year when Boca Bash revelers gather in Lake Boca. In both cities, officials hear regularly complaints from waterfront residents about irresponsible boaters and jet-skiers.

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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