Highland Beach Backs Out of Fire Contract, Wildflower Over Budget & More

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(Photo courtesy Delray Beach Fire Rescue)

Highland Beach wants out of the town’s fire-rescue contract with Delray Beach–perhaps as soon as next year.

At last week’s meeting, the town commission voted unanimously to send Delray Beach a notice of withdrawal from the 10-year contract that runs until 2026. Each side must provide three years’ notice. Town Attorney Glen Torcivia, however, claimed that Highland Beach may have reason to terminate for breach of contract. In that case, the town could ask to leave after just one year.

For now, the letter will date Highland Beach’s notice as May 1 for departure in three years. Mayor Douglas Hillman, however, wants to reserve the “option” of getting out even earlier. Commissioners will decide after a “forensic” examination of Delray Beach’s performance.

Hillman said additional costs from Delray Beach’s increased staffing would bring the contract to 40 percent of Highland Beach’s budget next year. He claimed that the town could save $2 million a year in operating expenses with its own department, thus offsetting in five years what a consultant said would be startup costs of between $8 million and $10 million.

Delray Beach Fire Chief Keith Tomey consistently has challenged the consultant’s numbers on which the town commissioners are relying. Tomey believes that the consultant especially has lowballed the startup costs.

On Monday, Tomey also challenged Hillman’s assertion that Highland Beach has a “good possibility” of a mutual aid agreement that would replace the one with Delray Beach. No nearby full-service city, Tomey told me, would sign an agreement with a town that has only about 4,000 residents. Delray Beach has such agreements with Boca Raton and Boynton Beach because all parties have the resources to help each other. A deal with Highland Beach, Tomey said, would be too lopsided.

Whatever the real numbers, the issue has become personal in Highland Beach. Hillman claimed that the town is subsidizing calls from Highland Beach’s station to Delray Beach. He predicted further cost increases because of the city’s “low-funded pension” and the new contract with the International Association of Fire Fighters.

One commissioner praised Hillman’s “courage” and criticized “misinformation” from Delray Beach. Another said Delray Beach simply wanted Highland Beach to be “subservient” and just accept higher and higher costs because the contract has no annual cap.

An example of those contested costs is Delray Beach’s plan to add a third person on rescue calls from the station in Highland Beach. Tomey defends the added expense by citing, among other things, American Heart Association protocols. They note that some lifesaving procedures require two persons with the patient while the third drives.

Hillman acknowledged the potential benefits by saying that Highland Beach “might” add a third person. If that happened, though, he claimed that the town still could do it for less money. “Health and safety of our residents,” Hillman said, is the priority, “not the savings.”

Still, money seems to be the flashpoint. Town commissioners complained about all the captains in Delray Beach’s fire department compared to the city’s police department. Tomey calls that a false comparison, since captain is the first level of promotion after driver-engineer, which is not a supervisory position.

Field training officer is the police equivalent of fire-driver. After that, however, the promotion track goes to sergeant and lieutenant before captain.

Until now, Delray Beach commissioners have shown little interest in negotiating. The general attitude has been that ending the contract might benefit the city.

Tomey, however, disagrees. “We need them as much as they need us,” he said. Without the contract, “We still need a way to respond” to calls from that Highland Beach station. “And those calls only will increase.”

For now, Tomey said, the department is talking with city administrators about the 22 employees who could lose their jobs if the contract ends. The department has averaged between four and five departures each year recently, so turnover could solve part of that problem.

If Highland Beach alleged breach of contract, Delray Beach could challenge that. In an email, Delray Beach City Attorney Lynn Gelin said that “the City would absolutely contest a termination for breach.” The city commission’s next regular meeting is May 4.

Tomey’s perspective

Part of this issue also is personal for Tomey. In December, he suffered a serious heart attack. Coral Springs/Parkland firefighters responded with four people in the vehicle.

Tomey credited the responders with saving his life. Three paramedics were in the back of the truck with Tomey when he had his heart attack, “because they thought I was going to code,” he noted. A fourth was driving.

Wildflower update

Wildflower/Silver Palm won’t be just the most expensive park–based on size–that Boca Raton has built. It will also be the most micromanaged park.

During Monday’s workshop meeting, city council members spent more than an hour making some small cuts to the projected budget while debating the location of a bathroom and “stone seats” that look like mushrooms with the stems cut off. All this over 6.2 acres north and south of the Palmetto Park Road bridge on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Though the council tentatively trimmed it–a final vote will take place in two weeks–the construction price likely will be $1 million-plus over budget. That could be roughly $9 million. Add the $7.5 million purchase price for the roughly two acres of the Wildflower portion.

Councilman Andy Thomson asked how much it cost to build Hillsboro El Rio South Park, which opened in February 2020. Answer: about $5.7 million on 14.7 acres the city already owned. The project came in on budget.

Councilwomen Andrea O’Rourke and Monica Mayotte rejected that comparison. O’Rourke, who opposed any cuts to what the contractor had proposed as a $10.3 million project, said Wildflower/Silver Palm would be an “experiential destination” with “hidden economic benefits” for downtown merchants. Those benefits must be very hidden, since no city study has outlined them.

O’Rourke repeatedly cited the supposed community “vision” that only busting the budget could fulfill. There were public forums and people did provide comment. But this project long has been dominated by a slice of the city that lives nearby and hated the idea of a revenue-producing restaurant on that property. “If we didn’t have so much vision,” Mayor Scott Singer said, “we wouldn’t be spending so much money.”

If only that vision had more grounding in reality. At one point, supporters proposed that there be no parking places. The Silver Palm portion includes the existing motorized boat launch, but the uses on the Wildflower property presume that a tiny parcel can become what O’Rourke calls “an amenity of excellence.”

Breaking the budget for Wildflower/Silver Palm won’t shake Boca Raton’s financial foundation. The question is whether the money to build it will have been wasted.

Rental bills fail again

For another year, legislation to preempt local regulation of vacation rentals has failed in the Florida Legislature. Boca Raton, Delray Beach and many other cities had opposed the bills.

Preemption has become more of an issue in recent years. Another bill that didn’t pass would have prevented local governments from banning new gas stations. Interestingly, Delray Beach just rejected a proposal for a RaceTrac station and restaurant. Under such a law, Delray Beach might not have had a choice.

Schiller moves on

Neil Schiller, the lawyer-lobbyist who has appeared often recently before the Delray Beach City Commission and also has had clients in Boca Raton, is leaving his firm to start a new venture.

Schiller and one other lawyer from Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr will form Government Law Group, practicing in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Boca Bash ripples

Here’s the scorecard from Boca Bash 2021, courtesy of the Boca Raton Police Department:

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has jurisdiction over Lake Boca, made 10 arrests for boating under the influence, one arrest for disorderly intoxication and one arrest for resisting arrest without violence.

In terms of public health, we may never know the total of COVID-19 cases spread by the maskless crowd in boats packed tightly together.