Frank Barbieri was very worried.
The issue was Palm Beach County’s plan for Phase 2 reopening, which the county commission debated Tuesday. The draft plan included a recommendation that schools reopen campus three or four weeks after counties enter Phase 2.
Previously, however, the school board had approved a plan that called for in-person education one week after the county entered Phase 2. Barbieri, who is board chairman and represents Boca Raton and West Boca, didn’t want Gov. DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to think that the board was trying to sneak by a change in its plan. When Hillsborough County sought to alter the plan that the Board of Education had approved, Corcoran threatened to withhold $23 million in state money per month.
Barbieri told me that he wanted the county commission to “untie” the school district from its plan. Otherwise, he believed that the district stood to lose $100 million. Barbieri communicated that to Commissioner Robert Weinroth.
Though Weinroth raised that issue, the commission approved the plan with language about schools. So Weinroth voted no. So did Commissioner Hal Valeche, though he had a different reason. As I reported Tuesday, the plan calls for a staged reopening. Valeche wanted everything to happen at once.
If DeSantis approves the plan, Phase 2 reopening will start on Tuesday. Under that schedule, students would return to classrooms the week of Sept. 14.
Is that too soon? County Health Director Alina Alonso noted Tuesday that the county’s positive test rate finally had begun to drop below the World Health Organization standpoint of five percent. Safe school reopening, though, depends on achieving that standard for at least two weeks. Palm Beach County, Alonso said, still has “a long way to go.”
And will the district be ready to reopen schools? Barbieri isn’t sure. Many logistical problems remain as teachers and administrators try to incorporate social distancing in spaces never designed for them.
Superintendent Donald Fennoy, who is charge of operations, may deserve some blame if things don’t go well. From a wider perspective, though, the back-and-forth between the school board and the county commission reveals the lack of guidance and support from Tallahassee for local government on reopening. DeSantis has offered no statewide plan and Corcoran has offered school districts more intimidation than help.
So here comes Phase 2. Hope for the best.
The usual suspects
Some of the usual crazies turned out for Tuesday’s debate, though their number seems to be shrinking.
They called the county’s mask ordinance “tyranny.” One woman claimed that commissioners were recklessly trying to “ram flu shots down our throats” because the vaccine makes people more suspectible to COVID-19. That’s not true. Public health officials are encouraging people to get flu shots.
Weinroth had told me before the meeting that he was getting a new wave of emails against mask wearing, even though increased use of masks surely has helped to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Weinroth said some people latched onto an email from Commissioner Greg Weiss in which he said masks might have to remain mandatory until the public has a safe, effective vaccine. Weiss likely is correct.
My favorite moment, though, came when the general manager of the Cheetah Dance and Nightclub addressed the commission. Like other business owners, he wanted a faster reopening. Nightclubs — Cheetah is a strip club — would reopen last under the county’s plan.
The ex-Marine likened the county’s treatment of the Cheetah to “leaving wounded on the battlefield.” Purple Hearts for strippers?
Potential shake-up on the Boca City Council
Constance Scott wants her seat back.
Scott served six years on the Boca Raton City Council, holding the Seat C that now belongs to incumbent Jeremy Rodgers. She left because of term limits in 2015, and Rodgers will be term-limited next March.
Rodgers, a member of the Naval Reserve, has been deployed overseas. Though he can’t vote remotely, he can participate in the council’s virtual meetings. “I hope he can serve out his term,” said Scott, who told me Wednesday that she spoke with Rodgers at length before his deployment.
After leaving the council, Scott began working for Florida Atlantic University in its government relations department. She has spoken often before the council. Though she can keep her post while campaigning, she would leave it if she won. In that event, Scott said, she might work for FAU in another capacity.
Councilwoman Monica Mayotte’s seat also is on the ballot next year. Mayotte plans to run for reelection.
Is more FAU development on the way?
A developer in Boca Raton apparently hopes to turn public sentiment against a planning staff recommendation.
Cav Core Boca Raton LLC, based in Chicago, owns a roughly 12-acre parcel on Northwest Fifth Avenue across the El Rio Canal from Florida Atlantic University. Cav Core wants to combine the site with that of an adjacent church to the south and build housing for students. The proposal would increase by nearly 600 percent the number of allowable units.
To succeed, the developer needs a change to the comprehensive plan. Last week, the city council introduced the ordinances that would allow construction. City Manager Leif Ahnell, however, asked for the introduction so that the council then could deny the project.
The proposal calls for 234 units where rules now permit just 41. The centerpiece would be a four-story building with 182 units, most of them home to three or four students. City planners believe that the project would be incompatible in the single-family neighborhood. Cav Core bought the property in January 2015 for $6 million.
Previously, the developer had hung fliers — like those in political campaigns — on front doors to tout the project. Now Cav Core is conducting an email “survey” of residents, asking them to “make your voice heard.”
The survey asks residents if they are concerned about traffic generated by FAU students who must live off campus because the campus itself can hold only 13 percent of all students. That figure is misleading because FAU is not a traditional university. Most students commute.
One question asks whether residents would favor a “privately funded pedestrian bridge” across the canal to FAU. Cav Core obviously hopes that this amenity could sweeten the deal. Residents who like the idea could speak with a representative of the developer.
About five years ago, there was a big push to develop a university-oriented district along 20th Street east of FAU and six blocks south of the property in question. University and city officials were very interested.
Since then, however, the university has indicated that it wants to keep all residential students on campus. Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been no recent discussion.
But Cav Core pushes on. Because the site is larger than 10 acres, the comprehensive plan would require review by the state and a supermajority — four votes — of the council. The first public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. A vote would come at the second hearing, which has not been scheduled.
The new Boca budget
Boca Raton holds the first of two budget hearings Monday at 6 p.m.
City Manager Leif Ahnell proposes just a slight increase in the operating budget, to $187.4 million. That would be up about $1.5 million. The operating budget finances most basic services, including fire, police and parks.
Last summer, the city council voted to keep all sanitation services in-house rather than contract residential garbage pickup to a private company. City administrators had strongly implied that the switch would save money.
So the budget proposes a saniation fee increase of roughly $2 per month for single-family homes and $1.20 for condos. The extra money, Ahnell said, is necessary to maintain the trucks that the city is keeping and for extra storage.
Ahnell is proposing no increase in the fire or stormwater fee. Though the overall tax rate won’t change, most property owners will pay more because of higher values.
Delray talks money with firefighters
For Delray Beach, the budget month of September also means negotiating a new contract with the International Association of Firefighters. City commissioners and administrators meet today in executive session — public excluded — to discuss the negotiations.
Fire and police contracts usually run for three years. This year’s talks come amid uncertainty over the next two budgets because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The USPS controversy, and its impact
The controversy over the U.S. Postal Service takes me back about two years.
Recall that the USPS was in a dispute with Investments Limited, the agency’s landlord for its downtown Boca Raton post office just south of Mizner Park. Postal Service officials threatened to move or close the office unless they could negotiate a new lease to their satisfaction.
That prospect generated more public reaction than most stories I’ve covered since starting this blog six-plus years ago. Residents packed the downtown community center and grilled a Postal Service official. Many were self-employed and said the office was critical to their businesses.
Investments Limited and the USPS reached their deal. Crisis averted. But the controversy showed again why the Postal Service can’t operate like for-profit delivery services.
Federal Express and United Parcel Service can cut off unprofitable routes or areas of service. The Postal Service can’t. Even if it had made financial sense to close the downtown Boca office, public pressure would have forced the agency to keep it open. Though the Postal Service technically is independent of Congress, lawmakers must approve many issues related to the agency’s operations.
The most important word in the agency’s name is service. The agency is no more designed to make money than the state park system, even though former Gov. Rick Scott made it a goal.
Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon asked the county commission on Tuesday to pressure Congress on changes that have slowed mail service. She worries that homeowners could face fines for late property tax payments that they actually had made on time. Delays, Gannon said, “could affect every one of your constituents.”
Then there’s the issue of mail-in ballots. Twenty years after Bush vs. Gore and the Butterfly Ballot, will late-delivered — but still legal — ballots be the new hanging chads?