Local Budgets Sidestep COVID Cuts, Mizner Park Arts Center Talks Heat Up, and More

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Last June, Palm Beach County Property Appraiser Dorothy Jacks cautioned local officials to be conservative with their budgets. Yes, property values countywide were up about six percent, but her office worried that the COVID-19 pandemic could cause a dramatic drop, especially in commercial property values.

This week, however, Jacks sounded downright optimistic. “Commercial has surprised us,” Jacks said. “Residential has really surprised us.”

Cities will get the preliminary tax rolls on June 1. Despite the pandemic, Jacks expects an increase countywide of between three and five percent, and it could be a little higher.

Jacks’ comments will please administrators and elected officials in Boca Raton and Delray Beach. No one wanted a rerun of the Great Recession. Home values, which were artificially high because of the real estate bubble, crashed. Layoffs and service cuts followed.

So why are things different now?

For one thing, Jacks said, roughly $3 billion worth of projects were completed in 2020. “That’s new money,” Jacks said, since it hadn’t been on the rolls. And she expects a similar bump from projects this year.

For another, commercial property values in some sectors have dropped, not cratered. Not surprisingly, hotels are down the most, between 15 and 25 percent.

“They will take the longest to recover,” Jacks said. “People must first be willing to travel and then to stay in hotels.” One of the two biggest single taxpayers in Boca Raton is the Boca Raton Resort & Club.

Also not surprisingly, restaurants are down by a similar amount. Retail has declined, Jack said, “but not as much.” Clothing and shoe stores have dropped the most, between five percent and 10 percent.

The other large taxpayer in Boca Raton is Town Center Mall. With retail hurting, one might expect that property’s value to go down. Jacks noted, however, that a drop in traffic also has meant a drop in operating costs.

Most cities, however, rely on residential for the bulk of their property taxes–the main source of local government revenue. By now, everyone knows that home prices have shot up. In February, prices in Palm Beach County hit a record.

Demand from people fleeing urban areas hit hard by the pandemic has created a frantic sellers’ market. Residential values are up between eight and 10 percent. “That’s almost too hot,” Jacks said.

People with homestead exemptions will have their taxable value increase capped at 1.4 percent. As in previous years, though, that will mean a higher bill even if Boca Raton and Delray Beach don’t raise their tax rates.

Still, cities could have been in a much tougher spot. “It won’t be the year we were worried about last June,” Jacks said. “We’re much better off.”

Mizner Park Arts Center timetable moves up

Discussion of a performing arts center in Mizner Park was not on the Boca Raton City Council’s agenda Monday. Discussion happened anyway.

During the community redevelopment agency meeting, people called in to support the project. It would be on vacant, city-owned land at Mizner Park’s northeast corner, combined with the adjoining amphitheater.

One caller said the city’s hiring of a consultant to review a lease for the property was “the latest delay” in finalizing an agreement with the Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corporation (BRADEC). Another caller complained that the city is “moving the goalposts.” Still another worried about Boca Raton “stagnating” if the council didn’t move quickly. Several people said they saw “no downside” to the city.

BRADEC’s attorney, Michael Marshall, chimed in. Though he thanked the staff, he asked the council to move “expeditiously.” Marshall added, “We need a schedule that’s more time-efficient.”

Council members were sympathetic. Monica Mayotte said, “I understand your frustration.” Andy Thomson agreed and worried about the “risk of getting stuck in the mud.” Andrea O’Rourke said, “I look forward to celebrating the opening” of the center.

Before any deal, Boca Raton must advertise the site for 30 days. The city can’t cut a deal without offering the property to anyone interested. Obviously, that’s a formality. No one but BRADEC envisions such a project.

City Manager Leif Ahnell, though, had wanted the consultant also to review that required notice. “We can’t just advertise the property for anything someone would like to build,” Ahnell said Monday, sounding a little exasperated. “We’re just trying to be transparent.”

Council members said the city could speed things up by advertising vaguely for a “performance venue.” Ahnell acknowledged that such a notice could go out this week. The city has received three offers for the consultant work, and the choice could come next week.

If the calls were intended as a lobbying push, they succeeded. After Monday’s discussion, a lease could go before the council in April or May.

PPE littering fines increase

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Boca Raton has increased the penalty for illegally discarding personal protective equipment.

Councilman Andy Thomson proposed raising the fine from $50 to $250 for face masks and shields, gowns, gloves and other items. On recent runs throughout the city, Thomson said Tuesday night, he has picked up 308 pieces of PPE. “They are just everywhere.”

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke pointed out, correctly, that the fine will be hard to enforce. People don’t generally toss these health hazards in plain sight. But the move could be part of what O’Rourke called “an awareness campaign.” Added Thomson, “Boca is better than that.”

District redrawing presents complications

There’s been much talk about the election bill before the Legislature. It would make changes that critics believe would suppress minority votes. Until this week, there had been less talk about how the bill would affect county commission elections.

Palm Beach County’s seven commission districts will be redrawn for the 2022 elections, just like those for Congress and the Legislature. Though the boundaries may not change much, commissioners may represent residents new constituents.

Accordingly, the bill’s supporters say, all county commissioners must be on the 2022 ballot. That won’t be a problem for Robert Weinroth, whose District 4 includes Boca Raton and parts of Delray Beach. He is already up for a new, four-year term next year. So is District 2’s Greg Weiss, who represents the West Palm Beach area. District 6 Commissioner Melissa McKinlay is term-limited in 2022. All even-numbered districts are up.

But the four commissioners in odd-numbered districts, all of whom were elected in 2020, also would have go on the ballot after two years. That includes Maria Sachs, whose District 5 includes suburban Boca Raton and Delray Beach, and Mack Bernard, whose District 7 includes the other parts of Delray Beach. The others who could be affected are Maria Marino in north-end District 1 and Dave Kerner in central-county District 3.

And because terms are staggered based on district numbers, Sachs and Marino might have to run not just in 2022 but again in 2024. Bernard and Kerner would have hit their eight-year limit by then.

News of the potential change came out of one line during a legislative committee meeting this week. Debate on the bill continues. The session ends April 30.

Delray elected officials get a raise

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Though the March 9 election didn’t change Delray Beach’s mayor or city commission, one thing did change: They’re all making more money.

Raises kicked in for Mayor Shelly Petrolia and commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel with the certification of their reelection victories. The higher salaries also apply to holdover commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson.

Petrolia’s salary will rise from just under $14,000 to $30,000. The commissioners will make $24,000, compared to their previous salary of $10,000. Both changes will go into effect on April 1st.

The raises required only a commission vote, not a public referendum. They could take affect, however, only after the election. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson voted for the raises. Boylston and Frankel voted against.

In 2016, Boca Raton voters narrowly approved higher salaries for elected officials. The mayor went from $9,200 to $38,000 and council members from $7,200 to $28,000. There had been no increase since 1984.