Fact-checking Boca Watch sales tax content and updates on issues in Boca and Delray

Boca Watch goes after sales-tax proposal

If you want a credible analysis of Palm Beach County’s sales-tax proposal, don’t look for it on BocaWatch.

The website, which has criticized the plan from the start, published a blog post from a Boca Raton resident named Jack McWalter. He has spoken against the proposal—which would raise the tax from six cents to seven cents for 10 years or until it raised $2.7 billion—at several city council meetings. McWalter claims to be knowledgeable about the issue. Not so much.

Let’s start with McWalter’s biggest inaccuracy: Boca Raton would get no money.

McWalter, who said he attended all the meetings at which officials crafted the plan, calls this conspiracy theory a “bombshell.” A better word would be “crackpot.” McWalter writes, “Most of us will be dead before we see any of those dollars allegedly promised to Boca.” He will be right only if “most of us” die within the next 10 years.

If voters approve the tax, the school district would get $1.35 billion, the county would get $810 million and the cities would get $540 million. Boca Raton would get a share from every source.

Nine schools in Boca Raton would get a combined $100 million, with most of the money going to where the needs are greatest. In Boca, that means Addison Mizner and Verde elementary schools, which the school district’s Facility Condition Assessment Report classified as Poor, the lowest ranking. Verde would get about $24 million and Mizner about $21 million for what essentially would be makeovers of both schools. Spanish River High, which was rated Fair, would get about $19 million.

From the county’s share, key roads in Boca Raton would be resurfaced and get new lane striping. That work would include Military Trail from the Broward County line to Clint Moore Road and Palmetto Park Road from Interstate 95 to downtown Boca. The money also would pay for bridge repairs in and around Boca Raton.

Then there’s the city’s share. It’s true that Boca Raton provided no list of projects that revenue from the tax would finance. The city has no infrastructure backlog. But Boca would receive between $52 million and $61 million over those 10 years for the city to spend as it wanted.

No amount of anti-Boca Raton sentiment could stop any of that from happening. Citizen committees would oversee spending by the school district, the county and the cities. Though McWalter told BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro that the half-cent sales tax increase for school construction that ran from 2005 until 2010 amounted to “fraud” and “deception,” he’s wrong.

The citizens committee overseeing that program reported that 98 percent of the promised projects had been built. Four schools weren’t built because changing enrollment patterns made them unnecessary. In the committee’s words, the public’s money “was well spent.” The committee’s chairman was Hardrives of Delray President George Elmore, who is no one’s idea of a tax-and-spend liberal.

In addition to that outside oversight, school board members and county commissioners would object to any spending trickery. School Superintendent Robert Avossa and County Administrator Verdenia Baker are honorable people—and they want to keep their jobs.

As for the cities’ portion, that’s the law. Counties must give the cities 40 percent of the county’s share of revenue from a sales-tax referendum. The money must go to cities based on population, not how much they generate in sales. Delray Beach commissioners griped about that when they blessed the sales tax. The Boca Raton City Council never took a vote, though Scott Singer wanted the council to oppose the tax.

So, yes, some money from Boca Raton would go outside the city, just as some money from outside Boca Raton would come into the city. Some of that money flowing out, however, would go for improvements at the county jail and courthouse, which serve Boca Raton and all other cities. Some of that money would pay for improvements in the countywide transportation network. Even the most provincial Boca Raton residents venture outside the city from time to time.

McWalter further undercuts his credibility with many other errors. He claims that premiums for Citizens Property Insurance are going up between 10 percent and 30 percent. In fact, the statewide increase is 6.4 percent, with bumps of 8 percent in this county. (Yes, that’s too high.) He also writes that health insurance premiums are rising between 19 percent and 43 percent. A survey of large businesses puts the increase for employees at 5 percent.

McWalter claims that the school district wants $24 million for Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton. The real number is $2 million. He claims that Boca Raton’s population will increase to 125,000 in 10 years. A spokeswoman said the city has no such projection. Mayor Susan Haynie said often that she doesn’t expect Boca Raton ever to be much bigger than 100,000. He suggests that the school district might use sales tax money for teacher salaries. Doing so would be illegal.

He does get right that Boca Raton represents an astonishing 13 percent—12.7 percent, to be precise—of the county’s taxable property roll. But McWalter wrongly says that distinction makes Boca the largest contributor to the $2.7 billion sales tax plan—different tax—and further claims that “several economists”—unnamed—have estimated that between $250 million and $350 million “will be sucked out of Boca over the years to pay for this surtax.” Yet the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce supports the sales-tax plan.

There is credible criticism of the sales-tax plan. Example: Boca Raton Councilman Robert Weinroth wanted the school district to levy another half-cent increase and the county to finance its work through a property tax bond. Supporters counter that bonds aren’t usually issued for maintenance and that tourists would contribute 25 percent of the revenue.

Full disclosure: I will vote for the tax. The Legislature has cut off almost every source of money for school maintenance, and the county commission held down the tax rate during the recession by deferring maintenance.

However you vote, though, cast a ballot based on the facts. You won’t find them on BocaWatch.

Note: I left a voicemail for BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro seeking comment about McWalter’s piece and the website’s other coverage of the sales tax plan. I did not hear back by deadline for this post.

The anti-Hillstone push hits TV

The political action committee that is financing the campaign against Boca Raton’s deceptive waterfront ordinance apparently has made its second media buy, according to state records. The PAC is running TV ads, and signs urging a vote against the ordinance are appearing on major roads in Boca Raton. The ordinance is designed to block use of the Wildflower property for a restaurant.

New Delray city attorney

With the Delray Beach City Commission having chosen Lohman Law Group to provide legal services, City Manager Don Cooper told me Monday that he expects to have an “engagement letter” from the firm for the commission’s consideration at its Nov. 1 meeting. Cooper said the term refers to “what lawyers call the contract or terms governing their employment.” The commission had hoped that the new city attorney, whether an in-house person or a private lawyer, could start work in November.

More talk of train tracks barrier

Cooper also told me that discussions continue between Delray Beach and All Aboard Florida about a barrier at the Florida East Coast Railway tracks just north of East Atlantic Avenue.

In August, a Boca Raton woman fell on the tracks near Bru’s Room and was killed when a train struck her. The woman’s husband had been unable to move her in time. Five years ago, a man was killed in about the same spot as he tried to cross where there is no crossing.

Delray Beach does issue citations when a city official seeks someone trying to cross illegally. People often try that shortcut rather than walk about 50 yards south to the crossing at Atlantic Avenue. After the 2011 death, a police department spokesman said the man had misjudged the train’s speed. Mayor Cary Glickstein has noted that when All Aboard Florida’s 32 passenger trains begin running next year, they will not be blowing their horns. A “quiet zone” will remove that need.

The emerging consensus is for a barrier. Cooper said he hopes to make a presentation at the commission’s January workshop meeting.

iPic extension

At its meeting last Thursday, the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency did extend until Jan. 31 the deadline for iPic to close on the purchase of land for Fourth and Fifth Delray.

That closing depends on iPic obtaining permits for the project, which will feature a theater, plus retail and office space. IPic plans to put its corporate headquarters in Fourth and Fifth Delray. CRA board member Paul Zacks said he and his colleagues “have repeatedly expressed our concerns” about permitting delays, but attributed them in part to turnovers in the Planning and Zoning Department. The city and iPic also must finalize an agreement about management of the parking garage.

Silverball wins expansion

As a lifelong lover of pinball machines, I wanted to belatedly praise the Delray Beach City Commission for granting Silverball Museum’s request this month to operate as what the city calls a “commercial recreation facility.”

Silverball is on Northeast Third Avenue just north of Atlantic Avenue and just east of the FEC tracks. It features vintage pinball and many other games, and also offers food and alcohol. It began as a place to play the games, but Silverball has become so popular that the owners wanted to add a full bar and to rent out the place for events.

The commission went along. Mitch Katz, who has been Silverball’s biggest fan, noted that it offers something more than one more place on or near Atlantic to eat and drink. Having taken my grandsons there many times at their request, I can vouch for Katz’s comment that Silverball complements Atlantic Avenue. So would iPic, if the city and company can work things out.

Big election turnout expected

Based on the lines for early voting on Monday at the Boca Raton Downtown Library, projects for a big turnout before Election Day are correct. If those numbers hold up, expect Delray Beach to jawbone Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher for a site within the city.

Like Boca Raton, Boynton Beach also has an early voting site—the Ezell Hester Center—within the city. You can vote early at the South County Civic Center on Jog Road in West Delray. But there is no site within Delray Beach, and city commissioners want that to change.

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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.