As the holidays approached, Fort Lauderdale was a municipal embarrassment.
Pictures ran nationwide of city workers pumping sewage from streets into the Tarpon River. Then there was another sewer pipe break. And another. Residents in the affected areas and their guests had to celebrate Christmas in hotels because of the stench.
Could it happen in Boca Raton or Delray Beach?
Fortunately, both cities appear to have made plumbing a much higher priority than Fort Lauderdale. For a decade, city commissions there have raided the water and sewer fund to avoid raising the property tax rate. During that time, the city basically stopped financing public works projects.
According to a city spokeswoman, Boca Raton about five years ago conducted a “criticality assessment” of roads, pipes and sidewalks. The project identified neighborhoods most at risk of a water or sewer main break. Not surprisingly, many are older neighborhoods.
Money for water, sewer and stormwater systems doesn’t come from property taxes. It comes from fees. Because Boca Raton’s utilities funds are strong financially, the city was able to use cash for the 10-year, $200 million set of projects—part of the Innovative Sustainable Infrastructure Program—to upgrade pipes in at-risk neighborhoods.
Work in Chatham Hills and Country Club Village began last September. Next will be Boca Raton Square, Boca Villas, Boca Woods, Winfield Park, Old Floresta, Tunison Palms and Lake Floresta Park. The city is doing the road and sidewalk work simultaneously, to avoid tearing up a neighborhood twice.
There’s more. The spokeswoman said Boca Raton has hired the Boston-based engineering firm CDM Smith to study what would happen if a “critical failure” in the utility system happened near Boca Raton Community Hospital or a school. Based on that report, the city will determine whether to upgrade those areas. Even newer “predictive technology” could be available soon.
A Fort Lauderdale-like disaster, the spokeswoman said, “is what keeps (Utilities Director) Chris Helfrich up at night.” Police and fire may be a city’s most visible services and at times the most important. Utilities systems mostly are invisible until they become visible in a bad way.
At this point, Boca Raton has not raised water and sewer rates to pay for these upgrades. Residents do pay a cost-of-living increase each year.
The spokeswoman said, “As predictive technology improves, we may find, at some point, that it’s critical for us to make immediate improvements. That might warrant consideration of a rate increase or bond, but for the near future, that’s not being discussed.
She added, “Even if we had to consider a rate increase, our rates would still be lower than most cities.”
And Delray Beach pipes
As for Delray Beach, a spokeswoman said the city “began an assessment” of underground pipes two years ago and completed it last summer. Recommendations from the assessment, she said, will go into the new Capital Improvements Plan that the city will craft this spring under new Manager George Gretsas.
Like Boca Raton, Delray Beach is using technology to detect potential pipe ruptures. The city soon will seek bids for an electromagnetic scan of a two-mile section of pipe to look for corrosion. The assessment identified that section, near Congress Avenue, as possibly corroded.
According to the spokeswoman, the scan might cost $200,000. If it shows that only portions of the pipe needs replacing, however, Delray Beach could save money compared to the $11 million it would cost to replace the entire pipe.
I filed a public records request for that assessment. I’ll have more after the city sends it.
Beach and Park District reclaims golf course project
The board of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District voted Monday to reject the city’s proposed agreement on the Boca National golf course. Unless something changes, the district will seek to finance construction of the course and will operate it.
In that case, the timetable for opening the course would be unknown. It could take several years. The district claimed repeatedly that it could pay for construction on its own if the city underwrote bonds, as the city did for the district to buy the land. Then last summer, the district asked the city for $20 million to build the course.
Board members say the district will continue to reimburse the city for the annual purchase payments. Beyond that, the dialogue seems to be over. The two sides remain at odds over design and cost of the course.
“Speaking for myself,” said board member Steve Engel, “I really wanted to give the city the benefit of the doubt and find a way to partner with them in some fashion. But after reading and rereading the amended agreement and after conversations with our attorney, I came to the conclusion that the city wasn’t interested in a partnership.”
Engel said the district has “several options” on how long it would take to build the course. “It depends on how we can rearrange our priorities and optimize our cash flows.” He does not support a tax rate increase.
The city and district still are scheduled to meet on Jan. 27. Not long ago, the city envisioned that meeting as the time to finalize the agreement. Now the meeting may not even happen.
Board member Craig Ehrnst said, “I am available. But it doesn’t make any sense to discuss golf any further. The proposed (agreement) does not reflect a mutual trust and requires far more than negotiating a middle ground.”
He added, “Considerable time has been wasted, so it’s best to let the district build a quality course within our existing budget. If the city wants to help, they won’t be turned away.”
On the city council’s Monday workshop agenda is a discussion of the golf course. I’ll have more next week.
Pot Shops on the Boca Docket
All three Boca Raton meetings are next Monday, rather than the usual Monday-Tuesday schedule, so city council members can attend Palm Beach County Day during the first week of the legislative session.
On the city council’s regular agenda is introduction of the ordinance to allow medical marijuana dispensaries. The staff remains opposed. Public hearings would follow.
And Restaurant Row
Also on the council’s regular agenda is the Restaurant Row project for the northeast corner of Town Center Road and Butts Road. The project would bring five adjoining restaurants facing The Plaza office building.
Though the staff still has issues with the design, the recommendation is for approval. The applicant is an entity of Crocker Partners, which owns The Plaza.
And in print…
The current edition of Boca magazine includes my article about the attempt to redevelop the city’s Midtown neighborhood. At deadline for that article, three lawsuits were pending against Boca Raton over the city council’s refusal to approve redevelopment rules.
The plaintiff, Crocker Partners, has dismissed two of those lawsuits. A third, which seeks nearly $140 million in lost profits, continues.
Hidden Valley update
In other lawsuit news, I wrote Tuesday that Boca Raton appeared to have prevailed in litigation by the landowner and a developer that wanted to build homes on the former Hidden Valley golf course in the city’s north end. On Wednesday, the city confirmed that the plaintiffs had voluntary dismissed its appeal of a trial court ruling for the city. That case, the city attorney’s office said, “is no longer pending.”
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