Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Police in Schools, the Ocean Breeze Discussion Continues, and More Agenda Items

I had reported that the Palm Beach School District would propose formal agreements with cities to provide law enforcement officers at every campus. The agreement with Boca Raton is on tonight’s city council agenda.

The new state law requires at least one officer on every public school campus. Even with added state money that came with the law, however, Palm Beach County’s school police department doesn’t have enough officers for the roughly 185 campuses.

Since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting on Feb. 14, Boca Raton has assigned officers to elementary schools within the city—which the district couldn’t cover—on an informal basis, paying the officers overtime. When the agreement takes effect Aug. 1, the school district will start reimbursing the city.

To comply with the new laws, the district plans to expand its police force. Hiring qualified officers, though, will take time. So the agreement with Boca Raton is for two years, with one-year renewals for another three years. Officers will arrive 30 minutes before the school open and leave 30 minutes after it closes.

Under the agreement, the officer “is to maintain a visual presence at the entrance to the school at arrival and dismissal times and shall move throughout the school during the school day, checking access/egress points and overall security of campus.” The officer must respond to “any acts of violence which threaten students, staff or parents on the school campus and will call for assistance when needed.” School administrators, though, will handle discipline and “non-criminal violations.”

The Ocean Breeze discussion continues

Monday’s discussion about the former Ocean Breeze course in Boca Raton lacked one essential: numbers.

We did learn that the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District officially wants the city council to contribute money for construction of the new course. We don’t know how much district commissioners want, because they didn’t say. Commissioner Craig Ehrnst said the district wants a “partnership,” but he offered no details.

We also don’t know if the city council will agree. Again, that’s largely because there aren’t numbers.

We don’t know how much construction will cost. It could be as much as $15 million, it could be as low as $10 million. That’s just to create a new course and get it operating. That money doesn’t include cost of a clubhouse.

District Chairman Bob Rollins acknowledged this morning that not having that number left everyone “kind of flying by the seat of their pants.” Well, yeah.

The lack of specifics is especially problematic because the district would like to start work in October and have play begin late next spring. Art Koski, the district’s former attorney who is staying on to oversee the project, allowed that he’s proposing “a very aggressive schedule.”

Koski said he hopes to have that missing number in 30 to 45 days.

City Manager Leif Ahnell reminded everyone that Boca Raton will release its budget next week. “And right now, there’s no line item” for golf course money.

Koski had said repeatedly that the district would be able to buy and renovate the course with the city only underwriting bond issues for each. Koski said the district also would be able to complete all of its projects and not raise taxes.

Indeed, the district board voted not to raise its tax rate for next year. The promise about not needing a direct payment from the city appears to have been broken.

Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer told me this morning that he could “say yes to some number, but we need to know how much the work will cost.” Koski also believes that the district still could start work if the city provided only bond underwriting. “This problem is solvable,” he said.

We also don’t know what the course will look like. Rollins said the district will hold three public hearings to get comment from golfers. Will there be 18 holes or 27? How challenging will the course be? Koski said the district likely would not seek to put a new hotel on the site of the vacant one that the district will demolish. A netter option could be a venue that generates revenue.

Clearly, though, the district is thinking big. The design likely will include technology to allow TV broadcasts of championship events. The new course might try to host the PGA Senior Tour event that makes an annual stop at Broken Sound.

At one point, though, the discussion got wildly unrealistic. There was talk of the district acquiring the abandoned portion of Jeffrey Street east of Northwest Second Avenue. What about widening Second Avenue?

Singer noted, “If you’re talking about sidewalks and roads, it’s no longer recreation. It’s a redevelopment project.” Ehrnst said that’s what he wants. Though the city has tried for years to encourage redevelopment on the North Federal Highway corridor, it’s late in the Ocean Breeze game to be talking about such a project.

Some district board members said the city should contribute money from the sale of the western course. That $65 million purchase, however, isn’t scheduled to close until next spring. The city doesn’t have that money.

Once the city council agreed to finance the $24 million land buy, the city was committed to selling the western course. Maybe it all would have reached this point anyway. But you wonder if the city might have balked if the district had made clear from the start that it would ask for that construction money.

City will vote on Gumbo Limbo contract

A loggerhead turtle at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center was the other big-ticket item up for discussion Monday.

As I had noted, the district has budgeted $1.3 million for a new boardwalk and observation tower. The city council may approve that contract tonight. The potential plans for Gumbo Limbo, however, are much bigger.

There might be a parking garage. More exhibits, which would need expensive infrastructure. The district’s Koski said a new pipe at Gumbo Limbo began as a $1 million project but has grown to $3 million and could wind up costing $4 million.

District commissioner Craig Ehrnst said, “The public wants bigger and better at Gumbo Limbo, which now receives money only from the district and from the non-profit Friends of Gumbo Limbo. “The district doesn’t have the budget for Ocean Breeze and Gumbo Limbo.”

Other commissioners noted the size of the district’s budget and the city’s, but that’s a false comparison. Boca Raton is a full-service city with police and fire departments.

As with Ocean Breeze, the city and district need numbers for Gumbo Limbo. They could come from a study to produce a master plan.

The city, district agree to split assessment

The two other issues on Monday’s agenda were a recreation needs assessment and non-resident fees.

The city and district agreed to split the cost of the $100,000 assessment. The study probably will take three or four months. The respective staffs will try to propose a simpler, fairer parks/sports fee schedule. There is no timetable for that presentation.

Tax rate to be decided

Also at tonight’s meeting, the Boca Raton City Council will adopt a tax rate for next year that is essentially unchanged. Almost all residents, however, will pay more.

That’s because property values are rising. In Boca Raton, the overall increase was about 6 percent. So the average residential tax bill would go up by that amount. The owner of a homestead appraised at $400,000 for this year’s budget would pay about $90 more if the increase in value has been about 6 percent.

Boca Raton also wants to raise the fire fee—which is a tax in all but name—from $125 to $135 for homes and by a larger amount for commercial properties. The fee, which is designed to cover roughly half the cost of fire-rescue services, began in 2006. Because the money is classified as a fee, the city doesn’t have to raise the tax rate to cover the department’s added costs.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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