Air is starting to come out of Boca Raton’s ambitious downtown government/civic “campus.”
Last December, city council members enthusiastically approved a consultant’s draft plan for the roughly 30 acres that include City Hall, the police station, the downtown library and other properties. The consultant has held two public forums. Example: Residents had expressed support for a much larger community center, so the consultant proposed more than tripling that space.
During this month’s two-day strategic planning meeting, however, that enthusiasm waned. City Manager Leif Ahnell noted that the project could cost $200 million—a figure I hadn’t remembered hearing—just for construction. The overall price would be higher because of proposed changes to roads in that area.
There had been discussion of closing Northwest Second Avenue, to make the area more inviting to pedestrians and cyclists. Council members and residents had envisioned the campus as a public gathering spot. Ahnell, however, said the consultant would need to provide “a significant road and traffic analysis.”
After Ahnell spoke, Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke said she preferred “a more conservative approach.” Mayor Scott Singer said, “I agree.” They backed away from what they had seemed to embrace four months earlier. Of course, the city still hasn’t decided how to pay for the work, though there’s general agreement that Boca Raton needs a new City Hall—it’s a half-century old and dated in key ways— and community center and probably needs a new police station; it’s 32 years old.
Andy Thomson suggested that Ahnell bring back the consultant for another workshop meeting. At that time, council members may decide how much of a reset they want on the downtown campus.
Aging government property
Delray Beach finds itself in much the same place as Boca Raton on government facilities.
City Hall screams 1970. The police station nearby on West Atlantic Avenue is about three decades old. The makeover of Pompey Park and its community center—hubs for the northwest and southwest neighborhoods—will cost $20 million, according to the master plan. Residents want Delray Beach to upgrade the municipal golf course.
So at Friday’s strategic planning meeting, City Commissioner Ryan Boylston will ask for discussion about a “large” citywide bond issue for these and perhaps other projects. This bond would be separate from the one the city floated for work that the countywide sales tax surcharge will cover. Boylston is talking about a general obligation bond financed through property taxes.
Delray Beach also faces perhaps $400 million in costs to deal with rising seas. Boylston sees that as another separate program that the city could finance through assessments. To most residents, that’s no different than a tax, but Boylston wants to distinguish his idea from other big, expensive priorities.
Boylston hopes to have some cost estimates and details for Friday’s meeting. But he has given the idea more than passing thought. Boylston told me Wednesday that he wants to talk about redesigning the police station to have lots of green space fronting Atlantic. That would combine with the open area in front of the South County Courthouse and would run into the public space of the Frog Alley project next to the Fairfield Inn.
These projects fall within the community redevelopment agency boundaries, but Boylston notes that the CRA doesn’t have the money. He wants to see if any commissioners share his sentiment.
There’s precedent for Boylston’s idea. Thirty years ago, the Decade of Excellent bond program started downtown Delray Beach’s revival. Optimistic as commissioners were, none of them could have imagined how far the city has come.
Another interesting development from Boca Raton’s planning meeting was strong support for Mayor Scott Singer’s proposal to spend city money on school safety.
The city still is assigning police officers to four elementary schools, but the Palm Beach County School District is reimbursing Boca Raton for that expense until the district’s police department can hire enough officers to post at least one on every campus. Singer suggested buying extra radios, fences and other items that could cost “in the high six figures” and said Police Chief Dan Alexander had spoken with his counterpart on the district force.
At Singer’s request, the council earlier had approved $10,000 for a trial program to provide group counseling services at Boca Raton and Spanish River high schools. Singer wants that spending to continue. After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, the Legislature allocated money for mental health services in schools. As usual with Tallahassee and public education, however, the money fell far short of the need.
When Singer finished, City Councilman Andy Thomson—the father of four young children—said, “I couldn’t agree more.” He spoke for his colleagues.
Boca fire station response times
Boca Raton Fire Chief Tom Wood always comes to the strategic planning meeting armed with statistics. He was ready again this year.
The city is building a new Station 6, which is at Clint Moore Road and Military Trail. Wood noted that the service area has added roughly 3,000 residential units in the last five years, so he wants to staff up the station.
With the demand from citywide growth, Wood worries about response times. The standard is to average eight minutes, Wood said. Boca Raton had met this between 95 and 94 percent of time, but the average now is barely above 90 percent.
Boca Raton recently has approved three senior living facilities. Wood said roughly 25 percent of the city’s residents are 64 years of age or older, but those residents generate 40 percent of the fire department’s calls. Based on those comments, the chances likely are good that the city will raise the fire fee again for next year.
Potential Boca Raton City Council candidates sometimes tip their intentions by attended the strategic planning meetings. Why would an uninterested resident sit through often tedious discussion?
This year, some such attendees were Holli Sutton and Brian Stenberg. I’ve heard talk about each of them running. Also dropping by were Kathy Cottrell and Tamara McKee, who finished second and third, respectively, behind Andy Thomson in last August’s special election. Cottrell, though, attended as a representative of Friends of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, which is seeking city money.
Three seats are up next March. Mayor Singer can run for a full, three-year term. He won that same special election eight months ago to complete the term of Susan Haynie, whom then-Gov. Rick Scott removed after her arrest on public corruption charges. If he won, Singer could serve a full second term.
Thomson won Singer’s old seat, which also comes open in March. Like Singer, Thomson could serve another six years. Andrea O’Rourke’s full term that she won in 2017—over Thomson and another opponent—also expires. Talk persists that she will challenge Singer.
Fortunately, Florida has reported only one case of measles this year while other states deal with outbreaks. Unfortunately for South Florida, the case was reported in Broward County.
The state just reported 2018-19 county-by-county vaccination rates for kindergartners and seventh graders. For 5-year-olds in Palm Beach County, the rate was 93.5 percent. That’s a slight increase from the previous year, but still below the 95 percent rate that public health officials believe creates “herd immunity”—protection even for those who haven’t been vaccinated.
For seventh-graders, the rate was almost 96 percent. At both age levels, the rate among private school students was lower, but at least it still was higher than Sarasota County, south of Tampa. There, the private school vaccination rate dropped to less than 90 percent.
Visit Florida update
I had written about the annual battle in the Legislature over Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency. It will cease to exist Oct. 1 unless Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoes legislation that abolishes Visit Florida.
Until this week, only the House wanted to put Visit Florida out of business. As part of negotiations with the session set to end next Friday, the Senate agreed to approve the House bill.
Palm Beach County has set tourism records for nearly a decade, since the recession ended. The county’s marketing site touts Boca Raton as a place for business meetings, citing the Boca Raton Resort & Club. It is unclear how the end of Visit Florida would affect local marketing efforts.
Today is the one-year anniversary of Haynie’s arrest on those seven public corruption charges. A status check on the case is scheduled for July 15. At last report, the trial would start in October.
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