School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri told me Monday that the Florida Department of Education did not approve Palm Beach County’s plan to reopen schools. Barbieri said the problem apparently was the proposal to bring back students in stages once the county enters Phase 2 of reopening and students can return to campus. The board will hold a special meeting Wednesday to discuss Superintendent Donald Fennoy’s recommendations. I’ll have more after the meeting.
Delray’s COVID costs
Delray Beach city commissioners have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic for five months. Today, they start to deal with what the pandemic has done to the city’s finances.
At their 10 a.m. budget workshop meeting, commissioners will debate Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez’s proposal of using almost $9 million from reserves to balance next year’s operating budget and pay for projects in the capital budget. They will debate as Alvarez warns that administrators still don’t know what the “full financial impact” of the pandemic will be.
COVID-19 restrictions on businesses especially reduced sales tax revenues, which are down 15 percent. The effects, however, spread to revenue from parking meters and many other sources. The commission already approved reserve money to balance this year’s budget.
Through expense cuts by department heads, deferred purchases and a hiring freeze, administrators cut $4.66 million from the fiscal year 2021 budget that takes effect Oct. 1. The proposed budget would take $4.32 million from reserves to balance the books and $4.4 million for capital purchases that Alvarez said the city needs to meet priorities set out by the commission that was in office two years ago.
Though Alvarez wrote in a memo that the staff is “challenged to fund increased expenses,” she proposes an $11.2 million increase in the general fund budget. It pays for the bulk of services, such as police, fire and parks and recreation. It’s separate from the capital budget and “enterprise funds” that run on fees, such as those for water and sewer.
Property Appraiser Dorothy Jacks had cautioned cities not to raise expenses from this year. She worries that the pandemic will start to affect commercial property values. If that happens, revenue will drop even more for the 2021-22 budget.
But even with that increase, Alvarez said, the pandemic would mean lower levels of service, even if the effect for now would be “minimal.” She wants the commission to review all capital spending and approve a study of utilities rates. Raising them would bring in more money.
Notably, Alvarez wants to delay the hiring of five firefighters through a federal grant. This issue has divided the commission and prompted criticism from Highland Beach, for which Delray Beach provides fire-rescue service. Highland Beach officials said their city can’t afford those hires.
Though Alvarez’s proposal would require a lot from the reserve fund, she notes that the balance still would equal roughly 22 percent of the general fund. That is above the level that municipal finance experts consider to be prudent. Delray Beach would have to tap reserves for hurricane expenses in what forecasters believe could be an unusually active season.
It’s worth noting that previous commissions regularly refused suggestions to use reserve money to lower the tax rate. Those suggestions sometimes came from Petrolia, whose allies include citizens perennially seeking tax cuts.
Using one-time money to cut annual tax rates makes no financial sense, as those earlier commissions understood. You never know when emergencies might arise.
Like a pandemic.
At their regular meeting later Tuesday, Petrolia and the commissioners will decide whether to raise their salaries, even as the pandemic forces budget cuts.
Petrolia began pushing for the increase several months ago. The mayor makes $12,000 and the commissioners make $9,000. Those salaries were set decades ago.
Based on salaries in five nearby cities, City Attorney Lynn Gelin proposes an increase for the mayor to $30,000 and for the commissioners to $24,000. In 2016, voters narrowly approved raises in Boca Raton to $38,000 for the mayor and to $28,000 for council members.
If the commission approves them, the raises would not take effect until after the March 2021 election. So Petrolia and Ryan Boylston could not make more unless they won re-election. Commissioners Julie Casale, Adam Frankel and Shirley Johnson, however, could give themselves $15,000 more without voter input.
Given current conditions, is this really urgent?
Petrolia’s role in CRA
Speaking again of Petrolia, the commission will decide today whether she continues running the meetings of the community redevelopment agency, not just the commission.
Since the commission took over the CRA in 2018—at Petrolia’s urging —the mayor has held that dual role. In Boca Raton, Mayor Scott Singer doesn’t serve as CRA chairman. That job goes to Andrea O’Rourke. Successive councils have believed in splitting that authority.
Because Delray Beach CRA includes roughly 20 percent of the city, setting the agenda and running the meetings is a big deal. Combined with those roles for the commission, Petrolia has outsized influence. It will be interesting to see if her colleagues still like that arrangement.
Train depot rebuild
Also at that meeting, commissioners likely will take the first step toward rebuilding Delray Beach’s historic train depot on the CSX tracks near West Atlantic Avenue.
Five students at Atlantic High School were charged with arson this past February after a fire they set destroyed the structure. Of four options, the staff memo recommends that the commission approve a plan to rebuild the depot as much as possible to its original design and with similar materials. Most of the cost would come through the city’s insurer, the Florida League of Cities. The city would pay only the $100,000 deductible.
“Taxation without representation!” screams a news release from candidates challenging incumbents on the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Parks District. Um, not really.
Nanci-Jo Feinberg, who is running against Erin Wright, and Eric Pendergraft, who is running against Steve Engel, said they “received a concerned text from a voter” complaining that the district races were not listed on his vote-by-mail ballot. The election is on Aug. 18.
According to the release, the voter lives in the Royal Palm Polo community. It’s at Clint Moore and Powerline roads. In late 2013, the city council annexed the 122 acres into the city at the landowner’s request. For decades, the site was home to the Oxley family’s polo operations.
With that annexation, the land also became part of the beach and park district. So residents pay taxes to the city and to the district. Both agencies build and maintain the area’s extensive parks system.
In the release, Feinberg and Pendergraft blame Wright and Engel for the annexation and the supposedly faulty ballot. But as the incumbents pointed out when we spoke on Monday, the district doesn’t annex property and doesn’t send out ballots. The supervisor of elections office handles ballots. And, as noted, the city council brought Royal Palm Polo into the city.
The release, Engel said, “is a distortion of the facts.” Wright called it “almost laughable.”
Ocean Strand update
Speaking of the beach and park district, board members last week approved a contract for the Ocean Strand property.
The 14-acre site near Gumbo Limbo Nature Center has been vacant and off-limits since the district bought it in 1994. With the $100,000 contract, Delray Beach-based Maracore Builders will construct a walking trail, benches and tables and clear vegetation so the public finally can use the property.
Board members hope that other improvements can follow this phase of development. At the district’s 5:15 p.m. meeting today, members of the public can offer comment. The district hopes to complete the work this year.