Delray’s business at hand and a new student center at Lynn

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Delray’s fire-rescue contract

Whatever else happens at tonight’s Delray Beach City Commission meeting, one development should be an encouraging sign of progress.

Five months ago, the city was dangerously uncertain about fire-rescue services. Should Delray Beach continue to have its own department, one key sign of a full-service city? Should the city contract with Palm Beach County? Facilities were an issue. The city needed a new station, with a training center, to replace the one on Linton Boulevard east of Interstate 95—the city’s busiest.

Part of that uncertainty was whether to continue providing service to Highland Beach, which Delray has been doing since 1993. In a February memo, then-Chief Danielle Connor said the department was at a “critical juncture.” She warned of many imminent retirements.

Connor recommended against renewing the contract with Highland Beach. City Manager Don Cooper angered commissioners by getting ahead of them on the question of shifting to the county and by telling Highland Beach that a new contract would carry a 20 percent administrative fee. The commission told Cooper to apologize, which he did in a letter to the Highland Beach town manager.

Since then, however, Connor has retired. Cooper appointed a new chief, Neal de Jesus, who has decades of experience in South Florida. If Connor sounded overwhelmed in that memo, de Jesus has been calming, from what city commissioners have told me. His presence was one reason the commission rejected the county option to focus on improving Delray’s department.

Tonight, the commission will approve a 10-year renewal of that Highland Beach contract. Mayor Carey Glickstein and commissioners Mitch Katz and Jordana Jarjura told me that they will vote in favor. Shelly Petrolia had not reviewed the material when we spoke.

Highland Beach will pay all of Delray’s annual costs, plus five percent. The cities will determine the cost of staffing the station between the end of the budget year on Sept. 30 and Dec. 1. Eight staffers will work at the Highland Beach station, and Delray Beach will decide which calls take priority if the station gets two or more simultaneously. Delray Beach must plan for another agency to help respond if needed in such circumstances. The cities can renew the contract for another 10 years. If Delray Beach contracts with the county, Highland Beach can opt out with 12 months’ notice.

Katz called it “a fair deal for both sides.” Though the agreement does save Highland Beach from seeking an alternative to service the town has liked and assesses only a modest fee, Delray Beach might benefit even more.

According to Connor’s memo, the Highland Beach station—No. 6—responds to about three dozen calls per month in Delray Beach. Only one other station is on the barrier island. Station 6 also is the backup for the Linton Boulevard station. Keeping it part of the system will benefit Delray Beach in ways beyond financial.

In addition, the successful negotiations should boost Cooper’s standing. He hired de Jesus, whom Mayor Carey Glickstein called “invaluable” during discussions with Highland Beach. “I was very impressed with his depth of understanding the service needs of both cities in such a short time. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he had been here for years.”

Cooper, Glickstein added, “was instrumental in getting this done. He brought a lot of knowledge and experience to the negotiations, which was evident to Highland Beach.” Glickstein called Cooper and de Jesus “extremely prepared and a formidable team. Their experience and professionalism made me proud to be sitting at the table with them.”

Jarjura acknowledged that what happened in February “did not make us as a city look good,” but also said, “There was misinformation out there that made it appear that this contract was not in Delray’s best interest at any level. That is not the case. This contract works for both cities.”

For Delray Beach, it also should be a confidence-builder. The contract itself isn’t one of the biggest things facing the city, but fire-rescue services is. The changes over the past few months may show that if Cooper can put the right people on other problems, and the commission can set clear policy, the results could be just as successful.

Budget? Check.

Another sign of progress is that Delray Beach already has a proposed budget.

Commissioners complained last year to the city manager that they didn’t have enough time to review the budget before public hearings took place in September, when barely a month remained in the fiscal year. In fairness to Cooper, he had started work on Jan. 1, just three months before the serious budget work starts.

This year, commissioners will have two months to pick at the proposed 2016-17 budget. Cooper would reduce the overall tax rate slightly, to $7.21 per $100,000 of taxable property value, even while adding 16 staff positions. That figure includes debt service.

Cooper has emphasized the commission’s unexciting but essential priority of upgrading Delray Beach’s infrastructure. He would direct more money to “streets, buildings, seawalls, parks, and technology.” Examples include the beach promenade—the commission will see designs for Phase 1 tonight’s—replacing Fire Station No. 3 —see previous item—and repairs to the Veterans Park seawall and Old School Square. “These expenditures,” Cooper tells commissioners in his budget memo, “will form the underpinning of a long-term financial plan” that could cost nearly $250 million over the next 12 years.

The revenue headline is that Delray Beach tax base increased 10.4 percent. That will mean a 4.6 percent increase in property tax revenue. One-fourth of that increase, however, came within the Community Redevelopment Agency and must go to the agency, even though commissioners have said the areas that need the most work are outside downtown.

So expect more debate this year about the financial relationship between the city and the CRA. Cooper notes that the CRA would pay for more city projects next year. The CRA also would pay for two new police officers in the Clean and Safe district and a code enforcement officer.

Correctly, Cooper lays out policy questions for the commission that would “increase the city’s fiscal health.”

Here they are:

— Support the “increased percentage of CRA funding for city-initiated programs” in Cooper’s plan;

— “Change the existing CRA-city relationship to increase the total of CRA funding to the city. This is a strategic issue that impacts the long-term financial wellbeing of the city. The city’s operational requirements, repair and replacement needs, and tax reduction are dependent on increasing the funds received from the CRA”;

— “Facilitate property tax growth in (non-CRA) areas of the city”;

— Asking non-profit groups, such as the library, that each year seek city money to raise more on their own;

— “Enforce the Special Events policy to end subsidization of non-hometown events;

— “Utilize all legally available means of increasing non-resident related fees or charges (e.g., parking fees) to improve the city’s revenue structure.”

As Cooper acknowledges, such decisions may annoy certain “constituencies.” The commission, however, will have to understand that not every group’s priority is a Delray Beach priority.

Garlic Fest vote

When it comes to the special events policy, Cooper won’t have to wait long for a test vote.

Tonight the commission will vote again organizers can hold Garlic Fest next February, a date that would violate the new policy of only two downtown major events per month. The tennis tournament has a February date.

Two weeks ago, the commission tied, 2-2. Then-City Attorney Noel Pfeffer told commissioners that the vote amounted to no action, not a rejection. Mayor Glickstein, who was absent, will be back. If Glickstein adheres to his past comments, he will join Al Jacquet and Shelly Petrolia in denying the appeal.

Lynn’s new student center

Perhaps the most significant project in Lynn University’s campus upgrade is making its way through the Boca Raton review process.

Lynn wants to demolish the existing student center and replace it with the Christine E. Lynn Student Union, just to the south. Lynn hopes to open the three-story, nearly 45-feet tall, 65,000-square-foot building in 2018. Ms. Lynn—the university is named for her and her late husband, Eugene Lynn—donated $15 million toward the project. Lynn President Kevin Ross has said it will be the hub of the 115-acre campus. The city council approved Lynn’s first master plan in 1993, and approved updated versions in 2001 and 2010.

Lynn submitted its application in February. The proposed site plan went before the Community Appearance Board in April. Because Lynn would build two roundabouts on the road leading north to the student union from Potomac Road, some members wondered if Lynn plans to shift its main entrance from Military Trail to Potomac. The answer was no. Lynn also wants to add a parking garage on the campus’ northern end.

A revised site plan went to the city in late May. The next stop likely is the planning and zoning board.

Lynn hoops star

Longtime fans of Lynn University athletics will remember the basketball player who came to Boca Raton from Kenya via Hollywood.

Charles Kitonga Maina starred with Kevin Bacon in the 1994 film “The Air Up There.” Bacon plays a college coach who visits Kenya looking for talent and finds Saleh, a tribal prince whom Maina played.

After the movie, Maina tried to find similar success as a real basketball player. The current issue of Sports Illustrated magazine notes that while Maina did fairly well at Lynn, he failed to catch on with a team in Europe, and then couldn’t return to the U.S. because of visa problems. Maina now works at odd jobs in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Body cameras

On Friday, Delray Beach started the city’s body-camera program by equipping 20 police officers. A police department spokeswoman explained that the cameras will be “in standby mode. To begin recording, an officer must press a button, or turn on all of the emergency lights in his or her vehicle.”

Eventually, officers will activate the cameras when they turn on their Tasers, an action that indicates the possibility of a confrontation. The first phase is costing the city $34,000, which includes storage on a server.

Write-in candidate correction

Last week, I wrote that the four-candidate race for Palm Beach County Commission District 7 would go to a runoff in November if no candidate got a majority on Aug. 30.

Delray Beach City Commissioner Mitch Katz emailed to correct me. As he points out, there’s a write-in candidate, which closes the race to all voters except registered Democrats. Whoever gets the most votes next month will face the write-in candidate. The Legislature eliminated partisan runoffs in 2007.

That legislation nine years ago also allowed write-in candidates to disenfranchise many voters. Both parties have abused the loophole. Ending the loophole is one of many good election reforms – such as open primaries – the Florida Legislature has failed to enact.

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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.