Post-Irma Blues, Ocean Breeze, Delray’s City Manager Woes

A tree torn out of the earth by Hurricane Irma near Yamato and Second Avenue. While trees like this one have been removed, piles of debris still line the city's streets. Photo by David Shuff.

Hurricane gouging legal

Hurricane price gouging is illegal in Florida, but the Boca Raton City Council and the Delray Beach City Commission just legalized it. They had no choice.

A problem that began in Broward County has spread to Palm Beach County. With damage from Irma here, from Harvey in Texas and now from Maria in Puerto Rico, demand for debris-hauling trucks never has been higher. That demand will continue for months.

Boca Raton, Delray Beach and many other local governments in Florida sign contracts each year with a company to pick up hurricane debris. That contract kicks in only if either city needs the work. The rate is $8.50 per cubic yard in Boca Raton and $7 in Delray Beach.

Boca Raton’s contractor, AshBritt, doesn’t have enough trucks to clean the debris. The same goes for Delray Beach’s contractor. So the companies subcontract to get other trucks. With the demand high, other governments—especially in Broward County—began offering more. According to Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, Pompano Beach broke first and set the price higher.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Assistant City Manager Mike Woika told the council that Boca Raton needed to pay $14.50 per cubic yard or the trucks AshBritt needs to complete the work would go elsewhere. They would return only when the higher-priced work was done. If that happened, said City Manager Leif Ahnell, it could take between six months and 12 months to pick up the remaining Irma debris.

Worse, Woika said, the price may go even higher. The city also isn’t sure that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the city for that additional cost because it would be higher than the contract rate. To improve the city’s chances, the staff will submit the expense as a surcharge.

Obviously, Haynie and the council members hated to vote yes. Correctly, they did. Haynie and Councilman Robert Weinroth discussed responses. The city can lobby in Washington to have the surcharge covered; the standard FEMA rate is 75 percent. The Florida League of Cities can lobby the governor to set a statewide price limit.

Workers remove debris in Boca Raton. Photo by Randy Schultz.
Workers remove debris in Boca Raton. Photo by Randy Schultz.

Boca Raton already is spending $6.4 million on AshBritt and the company that—by law—must monitor AshBritt’s cleanup. Haynie, though, summed up the reality: “We need to clear our streets.” There are issues with traffic safety and public health, since debris piles draw rodents. It could take another three weeks to clear all streets and two weeks to clear all parks. Some residents are slowing things by mingling vegetation with building material and putting out second loads after a truck already has made a pass.

In Delray Beach, Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus told the commission that there was a “mass exodus” of trucks after prices rose. Contracts for Puerto Rico reportedly are in the $30-$35 range. He said Delray Beach also would have to respond by paying $14.50. In return, de Jesus said he would ask that the contractor guarantee at least nine trucks for four days and 15 after that.

Another problem with the city’s debris removal contract, de Jesus said, is that it doesn’t mention gated communities. So Delray Beach might not get back some of the $1 million de Jesus estimates it will cost to clear behind the gates. He intends to fix that glitch in the next contract. Boca Raton’s contract does reference gated communities.

De Jesus was more optimistic about the chance of reimbursement for the added cost. He also was realistic about the need to pay more. Yes, it’s an outrage. Fortunately, Boca Raton and Delray Beach have reserves to cover the costs. They can fight the outrage battles later.

Hurricane reserve fund

Boca Raton’s current $7 million allocation for Irma-related spending will come out of the $10.6 million hurricane reserve fund in this year’s budget. For the 2017-18 budget, the fund is $13.4 million.

The city’s second and final budget hearing will be Monday. That’s two days into the new fiscal year, but cities and counties got extra time for their budget hearings because of delays from Irma. Delray Beach approved its budget on second reading Tuesday night.

Permit approvals ramped up

To get the city cleaned up as quickly as possible, Boca Raton is speeding up permit approvals. Until Oct. 13, contractors and property owners can use this help for roofs, solar panels, doors, windows, awnings, docks, sheds and generators and for electrical services.

In Delray Beach, Planning and Zoning Director Tim Stillings said he knows of only three properties that suffered structural damage. For fence repairs or minor roof damage, he said, the city already issues such permits within 24 hours.

And more expenses

Cities will have such Irma-related expenses as employee overtime and food at the emergency operations center. Then there will be money to repair beaches. City Manager Ahnell said Tuesday that engineers still are “measuring” the damage to Boca’s fabled beaches.

Ocean Breeze

It was fitting that Mayor Haynie concluded discussion Tuesday afternoon of the former Ocean Breeze golf course.

A year ago, it appeared that Boca Raton simply would decide whether to sell the city’s main course and pocket the expected millions. Then Haynie said she wanted to “keep golf in Boca.” In came the idea of converting and reopening Ocean Breeze at Boca Teeca.

At one point, Lennar included Ocean Breeze in its bid to buy the western course. Lennar has a contract to buy the property from a subsidiary of Wells Fargo and thus was the only bidder with that advantage. But when the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District expressed interest in buying Ocean Breeze, Lennar modified its bid for the western course and negotiated directly with the district on the sale of Ocean Breeze.

As I reported Tuesday, District Director Art Koski based his case for the $24 million Ocean Breeze purchase price on a legal opinion that roughly 30 of the 212 acres have vested development rights. Earlier appraisals had been closer to $5 million.

Koski, on behalf of the district board, wanted the council to issue bonds for the purpose, with the district reimbursing the city for the bond payments. The district can’t issue the bonds. In addition to the $24 million for the site, creating a new course could cost $15 million.

As with the other two council-district confabs on Ocean Breeze, it might as well have been a Boca Teeca homeowners association meeting. Boca Teeca allowed the course to fail. Residents don’t want the course developed, so they support a new course as long as all the other taxpayers in the district help them pay for it.

The sense of entitlement ran high. Boca Teeca residents booed the two speakers who criticized the purchase price and applauded every favorable comment. There are roughly 2,000 votes in Boca Teeca, and 10 elected officials—most of them looking at another election—were listening. Koski said the council and district “owe it to the residents” to make what he touted as a “common investment” for the entire city and district.

With much less debate than I had imagined would take place, the residents got their way. The council unanimously agreed to underwrite the expense. Andrea O’Rourke spoke of the “legacy” the new course could leave. As for those pesky details, “We can figure that out down the line,” Jeremy Rodgers said.

There remain plenty of questions. District Chairman Bob Rollins acknowledged as much. “This was probably the easiest part,” he said of the council’s decision. Koski said the district now would be able to hire consultants and get a better fix on the cost of creating what may be called Boca Raton National Golf Club.

Koski based the $14 million estimate on the county’s cost to build the Osprey Point course in West Boca that opened five years ago. Renovation may be cheaper, but the district also will have to work the three, nine-hole layouts around Boca Teeca. The course was built nearly 50 years ago as part of the development.

There also is the potential issue of widening Northwest Second Avenue, the main entrance to Boca Teeca. Success will depend on golfers coming from outside Boca Teeca. Where would that money come from?

District board member Craig Ehrnst correctly pointed out that the new course could drive up property values in Boca Teeca and thus bring the city and district more money. The former Florida Atlantic University golf coach argued that the course could attract college and high school teams. A successful course, Koski said, could produce a surplus that reduces the drag from the bond payments.

Haynie noted the previous city-district partnerships to buy Ocean Strand and the land for Sugar Sand Park. The district now must decide how much money it wants and resolve such issues as whether the sale would void the covenant that allows Boca Teeca residents control over the property’s use. All details presumably will be contained in an ordinance the council approves for the bonds—when the district decides how much it wants.

Western course sale

A few hours after making that decision on Ocean Breeze, the council set rules for sale of the western course.

Deposits from the two bidders—GL Homes and Lennar; Compson has dropped out—were due Wednesday. On Oct. 24, each bidder will have 15 minutes for a presentation and can raise their offer. On Nov. 14, the council would authorize staff to negotiate a contract.

Mitch Kirschner, an attorney for Lennar, asked the council to include a deadline for the city to conclude contract negotiations. That date will be April 2.

City manager job a tough sell

The Delray Beach City Commission recovered quickly from a dead-fish slap to the city’s ego.

Commissioners gathered Tuesday afternoon to consider the applicants for city manager. When you consider the potential appeal of a city with 66,000 people, a vibrant downtown and three All-American City awards, you might expect that city to attract many aspiring CEOs. You would be wrong.

In all, the city’s consultant said, Delray Beach drew perhaps 20 applicants. “That was … unusual,” allowed W.D. Higginbotham. “They knew a lot about the issues,” he added. That may have been part of the problem.

Higginbotham diplomatically acknowledged what the commission acknowledged: the recent history of nasty comments between commissioners and commission micromanaging. There’s also an election in March that could mean a new majority. Happy, successful managers in Florida, Higginbotham said, would not be inclined to apply.

Indeed, none of the three applicants the commission chose to interview is from Florida. Nevertheless, the commission culled the list without the sort of rancor that might have discouraged some applicants.

The finalists are: Edward Collins, a former city manager who now works in the private sector; Mark Lauzier, assistant city manager in Tacoma, Wash.; and David Niemeyer, village manager of Tinley Park, Ill. The interviews are scheduled for Oct. 9-10, with the commission making the choice on the second day.

Waiting to find more names, Mayor Cary Glickstein said, would run the search into holiday season. Of the field, he said, “It only takes one.” Commissioner Shirley Ervin Johnson wished there was more gender diversity but said, “I’m excited. I think we will find the person we need.” Glickstein summed up the mood when he ended the meeting: “Let’s be optimistic.”

Pot stores

A few hours later, the commission struck a good compromise on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Like Boca Raton and many other cities, Delray Beach was considering a ban on dispensaries. The Legislature gave cities only the choice of banning dispensaries or allowing them where pharmacies are allowed.

Like other cities, Delray Beach hated that stripping of local control. Unlike many other cities, Delray Beach must act on marijuana dispensaries while dealing with an opioid epidemic that has strained services. Police Chief Jeffrey Goldman and Interim Fire Chief Keith Tomey supported the ban. “We don’t need any more calls,” Goldman said.

Florida does not allow medical marijuana that patients can smoke. The issue is under court challenge. City Attorney Max Lohman said there have been overdose problems with edible marijuana.

Mayor Glickstein noted that even though Delray Beach voted overwhelmingly for the constitutional amendment that permitted medical marijuana, no resident had spoken in favor of widespread distribution. In a nod to that support, however, Commissioner Mitch Katz proposed that the city establish the ban but agree to review it in a year or earlier if the Legislature revises the law to give cities control over where dispensaries can go.

In the meantime, residents of Delray Beach and Boca Raton—which likely will impose a ban—can get medical marijuana in Boynton Beach or Lake Worth or through the mail. The commission passed the compromise unanimously. Perhaps the manager finalists were watching.

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