Ocean Breeze Ruffling Financial Feathers and a Rally this Saturday for Gun Control

There are new strains in the relationship between Boca Raton and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District.

At issue now is money for renovating the former Ocean Breeze golf course. The district paid $24 million for the roughly 200 acres within the Boca Teeca community, and the city underwrote bonds to finance the deal. The district will reimburse the city for the annual payment.

Until recently, city officials had assumed that the arrangement for financing the renovation—$15 million is a rough estimate—would be the same. But at the May 9 meeting of the city council and the district board there was a question about whether the city might pay part of the cost directly, not just issue the bonds.

Board chairman Bob Rollins said that question “will continue to be raised. We would like to have the city’s support” for money toward the renovation. He and board member Susan Vogelgesang suggested that the city could use some of the $65 million that GL Homes will pay if the sale of the city’s western course goes through as expected in the fall of 2019.

“Some financial assistance,” Vogelgesang said, “would be appropriate.”

All along, however, Executive Director Art Koski has maintained that the district could buy and renovate Ocean Breeze without delaying current projects or raising taxes. The city runs the existing western course, but the district will operate the new Boca Raton National.

During the city’s recent goal-setting session, City Manager Leif Ahnell questioned whether the district could meet its existing commitments with the city. Ahnell cited the Ocean Breeze request as the reason for his concern. He cited the makeover of Red Reef Park and Gumbo Limbo Nature Center as one project that could be in doubt.

If the district formally requested the money, Rollins said he would not consider it “a contradiction, though it might seem like that.” Rollins based his argument on the definition of “existing.”

To Rollins, it means “underway.” His definition would include renovation of the district’s swimming and tennis facility and community center near Town Center Mall. It would include new fields at Patch Reef Park. It would not include Red Reef/ Gumbo Limbo and Phase 2 of the Spanish River Athletic Facility. Similarly, Koski said the district has money for “ongoing” projects.

Not all board members believe that the district will ask for that Ocean Breeze money.

“I do not envision any request,” Steve Engel said in an email. He notes that the district’s financial consultant—Merv Timberlake, the city’s former financial services director—concluded that “the district would be capable of undertaking the expenses involved in the Ocean Breeze project along with our current obligations.”

Craig Ehrnst also didn’t want to presume.

“The city has great resources, as demonstrated by the bond financing,” Ehrnst said in an email. “Given all of the districts budget changes, we need to regroup and reprioritize. Gumbo Limbo has massive plans and ocean Breeze will require significant capital.”

Engel and Vogelgesang didn’t like hearing Ahnell’s comments from me and not from the city manager directly. Having written this blog since 2014, though, I often feel like a marriage counselor on this subject. The two sides have spent four years trying to craft a master agreement covering the many parks they operate. No luck yet.

The next city-district meeting is scheduled for July 23. By that time, Koski said, he hopes to have a fairly good fix on the cost to renovate Ocean Breeze. Koski said the district might have several options for financing the construction and would discuss them at the joint meeting. At the district’s Monday’s meeting, the board will consider a contract with the consultant—Price/Fazio—that will design the course and supervise the work.

Koski hopes that construction could start in October. If it did, the course could open next year.

“The joint meetings,” Ehrnst said, “will help ensure we all get on the same page and the upcoming capital spending is prioritized with mutual elected official and public input.  Something that has not been done, because there have been no joint meetings. I personally look forward to it!”

Koski on his way out?

The Art Koski Era at the beach and park district is slowly but inexorably ending.

Koski has been the director since 2012, having taken the job at first on an interim basis. He has been the district’s attorney for three decades. More recently, he also was project manager. Someone else now has that job.

Board chairman Bob Rollins told me that perhaps in January the district would send out a proposal seeking applications for an in-house director. That timetable could lead to a hiring in spring or early summer, but Rollins cautioned against any predictions.

Koski got the job six years ago, Rollins said, because the board didn’t like any of the applicants to succeed Bob Langford. Rollins said Koski would stay on for a while “in some capacity to help with the transition.”

Rollins also said the district is preparing—no timetable yet—to hire a new attorney. Controversy arose recently when Koski sought—and received—a $120,000 payment above his monthly retainer for negotiating the purchase of Ocean Breeze. Despite the approval, some board members said Koski had surprised them with his request. Koski said his contract allows extra pay for district real estate work.

Koski also probably helped to create what became a manufactured controversy for the district in April. He had spoken with representatives of Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal about a Nadal-affiliated complex as part of the tennis center at Patch Reef Park. All along, Rollins and other board members said they didn’t want anything grandiose that would displace the existing courts.

Yet Rollins acknowledged that Koski got ahead of the board by discussing something grandiose. BocaWatch then claimed that the district was prepared to sell off Patch Reef and told residents to oppose what the board never seriously considered. It was similar to BocaWatch’s false claim that the plan for a restaurant on the Wildflower property was the city council’s attempt to “commercialize” waterfront parks.

Taken together, the two dustups show the risks of Koski’s arrangement with the district. I’ve heard that even from Koski’s supporters. Rollins and others credit Koski for his extensive record of service. But several council members have said relations between the city and the district were better under a full-time, in-house director.

Moms rally at the park

March for Our Lives (Photo by Randy Schultz)
March for Our Lives (Photo by Randy Schultz)

Nine weeks ago, the March for Our Lives rally against gun violence drew 6,000 people to Boca Raton. Organizers said the event would be the first of many, not the last.

One of those next events will take place between 10:30 and 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Lake Wyman Park. It is a project of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action. I’m proud to say that Boca magazine is a sponsor.

Lead organizer Sarah Phillips, who lives in West Boca, said the event is one of 420 nationally to commemorate National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Organizers want attendees to wear orange, which gun control advocates have adopted as their color because hunters wear orange clothing to protect themselves against accidental shootings.

The event will feature three speakers: Boca Raton resident Luke Sherlock, whose niece—14-year-old Gina Rose Montalto—was a victim of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting; Mike Marino, a Stoneman Douglas teacher; and a therapist who will discuss the effects of gun-related trauma. Phillips adds that there also will be food, drink and face painting.

“It’s a serious topic, but we want this to be a fun, family event.”

Phillips has three children, ages 6, 5 and 1. Gun violence, she said, has touched her circle of family and friends through suicides and accidental shootings. Though she had advocated for stricter gun control before the Parkland shooting, Phillips said she became more involved after that Feb. 14 tragedy.

Attendees can create a mural of their thoughts—expressed in orange, naturally. Phillips said the mural would be on display for two weeks at the Delray Beach Library. Phillips and other organizers intend to continue their campaign through the mid-term elections and beyond.

Gromann opts out of mayoral race

Former Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board member Glenn Gromann will not enter the special election for mayor.

Gromann had filed paperwork when the election seemed set for March, tied to the expected resignation of Susan Haynie as part of her run for the county commission. In April, however, Gov. Scott suspended Haynie after her arrest on public corruption charges and the council scheduled the special election for Aug. 28. Gromann said business conflicts prevent him from running on that date.

U.S. Customs opens at the airport

It look a little longer than anticipated, but Boca Raton Airport and the city got a status upgrade this week with the opening of the customs facility.

Travelers returning to the country by air or boat now can avoid a side trip to Palm Beach International or Fort Lauderdale Executive airports. That option should benefit Boca Raton’s economy.

Customs and Border Protection workers will staff the facility between 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Construction issues delayed the opening for several months. The airport advisory board approved the project in October 2014.

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