Delray Beach Water Troubles Continue, How the Election Impacts PBC, and More

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When Frederick Bloetscher wrote his report on Delray Beach’s reclaimed water system, he used the term “lack of institutional control” for a reason.

Some college sports teams commit violations so egregious and widespread that regulators cite a “lack of institutional control.” The resultant “death penalty” usually shuts down those teams for a set period.

Similarly, Bloetscher concluded that Delray Beach allowed reclaimed–non-drinkable–water to contaminate household water because of multiple managerial failures. Many people had a hand in the program, but no one was in charge. “That’s why I used the term.”  

Suspended City Manager George Gretsas asked Bloetscher last spring to prepare the report. Bloetscher teaches engineering at Florida Atlantic University. His company–Public Utility Management Planning Services of Hollywood–conducted the study. He will make a presentation at today’s city commission meeting.

There will be no “death penalty” for Delray Beach’s failures. You can’t shut down a city. Apparently, though, you also can’t fire anybody.

Gretsas, Bloetscher told me Monday, wanted to know which employees deserved blame. Bloetscher couldn’t tell him. “Nobody was in charge.”

These events surfaced in December 2018, when residents on the barrier island complained about feeling sick after drinking water. On Dec. 11, 2018, then-City Manager Mark Lauzier told the city commission that there was an “extensive investigation” ongoing and that “procedures were being reviewed.”

But the problems likely began a year earlier, when the city commission approved a $4.1 million contract with Lanzo Construction to expand the reclaimed water program. Lanzo may have made mistakes. Yet oversight and guidance from the city were weak. “(The city) should have had protocols,” Bloetscher said.

Without prodding from the Florida Department of Health, Delray Beach might not have acknowledged and addressed these programs. Repairs to the system have cost about $1 million and more expenses may be coming.

Then there’s the issue of public trust. The record shows that Delray Beach officials tried to hide these problems. The city no longer has many records related to the program. The Office of Inspector General is investigating what went wrong.

Bloetscher’s reports offered several recommendations to correct “a failure to have the appropriate resources, funding, oversight, policies and internal expertise in place to properly manage the utility system.

The Utilities Department needs more engineers and “expertise.” A staff member should make sure that no cross connections—reclaimed water to drinking water—happen. Give the reclaimed water program more “resources.” Review that the program installs backflow preventers, devices designed to prevent cross contamination of water systems. Improve communication with residents. Don’t allow residents to opt out of the program.

Bloetscher also raises four questions:

  • “What happened with the 2018 issue when residents that complained about the water, the back and forth with the testing and the health department?
  • “What did the health department do after notified about the complaints in 2018?
  • “Was (city) staff responsive enough in 2018?
  • “Did (city) supervisors act to address the problem in a timely fashion?

I asked a Delray Beach spokeswoman for the city’s response. Here it is, edited for length and clarity.

“The city takes the concerns voiced by the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) and our residents very seriously and has taken action to ensure program compliance, as well as the health, safety, and welfare of our community.” She said “many” recommendations “have already been addressed.”

According to the spokeswoman, Utilities Director Hassan Hadjimiry—whom Gretsas hired—has spearheaded several initiatives, including changes to staffing, policies and operations meant to address the concerns over the city’s reclaimed water program.”

Among other things, the spokeswoman said, the city now has someone to check for, and prevent, cross-contamination connections. In addition, the city has hired more engineers for the Utilities Department. Four positions will go the commission next week for approval because the hirings require a budget amendment.

Finally, there will be more “outreach” to tell residents about the benefits of the program. In keeping with state law, Delray Beach will try to all but eliminate the discharge of non-potable water to the ocean.

Bloetscher’s presentation comes 10 days before the commission meets to decide whether to fire Gretsas. He has alleged that the campaign to remove him stems from his effort to investigate the reclaimed water program.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioner Shirley Johnson are the only remaining members from the commission that awarded the Lanzo contract. Petrolia and Johnson voted to suspend Gretsas. Today’s discussion will be about water, and perhaps more.

Election impacts the airport

Ripple effects from Joe Biden’s victory will reach Boca Raton and Palm Beach County.

When President Trump has been at Mar-a-Lago, security restrictions have affected traffic at Boca Raton Airport. Notably, pilots taking off to the northeast must turn quicker to avoid breaking the wide perimeter around Trump’s Palm Beach residence.

After Jan. 20, when Trump leaves office, that will change. Executive Director Clara Bennett said Monday that the airport hasn’t received confirmation from the Federal Aviation Association. Normally, though, for “VIPs movement that are not Presidential, airspace is usually restricted over a three-mile radius, which means that activity at Boca Raton Airport would not be affected.”

And the County Sheriff’s Office

Trump’s defeat also will change what the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office must provide. It’s the lead agency for supplementing resources of the Secret Service.

Those expenses can be considerable, since Trump spent many weekends at Mar-a-Lago starting at Thanksgiving and continuing through the spring. For the 2017-18 budget year alone, the federal government reimbursed the office $5.6 million.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw told me Monday that he doesn’t expect a big change for the first six to 12 months after Jan. 20. Though Trump won’t get anything close to the security detail he now receives, he still may draw large crowds of supporters and critics—especially if he refuses to concede his loss to Biden.

After that, however, the change will be “pretty significant.” But if the Secret Service needs something, Bradshaw said, “We’ll provide it.”

Children of ex-presidents are not entitled to Secret Service protection. But Trump could extend it for his five children. Bill Clinton did so for his daughter and George W. Bush did so for his two daughters. Ex-presidents also can give up their detail. Richard Nixon did so.

Boca golf course sale

golf money

Remember when board members of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District said the city easily could pay for a new golf course by using money from the $65 million sale of the current municipal course?

Each time that scenario arose, City Manager Leif Ahnell would note that the sale hadn’t closed. It still hasn’t. And the closing may not happen soon.

On the agenda for tonight’s city council meeting is approval of the 12th amendment to the purchase agreement with GL Homes. This one would extend the inspector period from Nov. 30 until Feb. 21. GL and the city continue to work out issues related to construction of a communications tower on the property.

The city course is on roughly 200 acres at Glades Road and Florida’s Turnpike. If the council approves the amendment, the price will increase by $75,000 and the closing date will reset to Oct. 31 of next year.

Boca’s water plan

Since we’re on the subject of city water departments, the city council tomorrow night will update Boca Raton’s 10-year water supply plan.

State law requires that local governments, as part of their comprehensive plans, develop “traditional and alternative water supplies, service delivery, conservation and reuse programs” to serve population expected over the next decade. Like Delray Beach, Boca Raton’s reclaimed water program is part of that approach.

The city last updated the plan in 2016. Among other things, the new version increases water supply capacity from 334 gallons a day per person to 349 gallons.

Thanksgiving with Boca Helping Hands

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Boca Helping Hands wants donors to provide Thanksgiving meals.

Though the South Florida area is recovering from COVID-19 restrictions, unemployment remains above normal. According to a news release, nearly 2,800 families have requested free dinners under the agency’s Thanksgiving Box Brigade program. That’s an increase from last year of about 40 percent.

Each box costs $27.20. Those who want to donate should visit  https://bocahelpinghands.org/TBBDonation.