Friday, April 12, 2024

The mystery memo on open space and other news of note

Smoking memo

We have a mystery in Boca Raton. And the pitchforks are out.

The mystery is a 2003 memo from then-Community Redevelopment Agency Director Jorge Camejo about how the city should interpret rules under Ordinance 4035 for open space at downtown developments. The ordinance dates to 1988, as part of the downtown redevelopment plan. Forty percent of projects must be open, public space.

Under that 2003 memo, however, the city might have wrongly considered certain areas as open space. If that happened, a developer might have received more density while setting aside less public space. Or the open space might have been badly located. One of the city’s priorities has been to make downtown as pedestrian-friendly as possible. Strategic open space can make that happen.

The memo arose during Boca’s review of the Mark at Cityscape (above), the first project under a new downtown ordinance—5052—that grants 40 extra feet in height in return for adhering to city-approved architectural guidelines. There was general unhappiness about the Mark’s appearance, including its features at ground level. The review, which has been going on since last spring, drew attention to the memo.

Essentially, the memo expanded the definition of open space to include areas that are above ground level and not accessible to pedestrians, such as “areas under exposed balconies.” City staff now believes that such a definition does not enhance “the public realm” as Ordinance 4035 intended and proposes changing the language.

Obviously, however, there’s much more to this mystery. Why did Camejo write the memo? He left the city in 2008, basically forced out by City Manager Leif Ahnell, who then added the CRA director’s job to his portfolio. Camejo is now director of the Hollywood CRA.

During Monday’s meeting of the city council acting as the CRA board, Ahnell said he hadn’t known of the memo. He said no meeting agenda or minutes from that time mentions the memo. Dave Freudenberg, the former city council member who was CRA chairman in 2003, also said he never saw the memo. Mayor Susan Haynie, who was on the council in 2003, said the same thing.

Apparently, however, the city was using this policy memo for a dozen years to interpret rules on open space. A public vote created Ordinance 4035. At worst, the memo could have led the city to violate the will of the people and possibly the law.

Not surprisingly, many people who spoke at Monday’s meeting have reached that worst conclusion. They tossed around words like “malfeasance,” “scandal,” “chicanery,” “robbed” and “reprehensible.” Much time was spent rehashing the debate about growth in Boca, with one woman wailing that the council had “ruined” the city.

In fact, it is too early to reach any conclusion. Staff will review all downtown projects approved after the memo and how much open space they provided. The city also will review all projects approved between 1988 and July 2003, when Camejo issued the memo. Boca Raton will tell any applicants for new projects that open space approvals are subject to the review of Ordinance 4035.

The critics’ one valid point is the issue of accountability. When the city’s review is complete, Boca Raton residents should know why Camejo wrote the memo, whether any harm resulted from it and, if so, what the city intends to do about it. The council delayed a public workshop until that investigation is complete. There isn’t much to talk about productively until the city knows what  happened—and why.

Cutting taxes in Delray

Delray Beach commissioners and city administrators spent an hour last week in what sounded at times like a counseling session about Delray’s finances.

Chief Financial Officer Jack Warner outlined the 2016-17 budget. Though he was seeking early direction from the commission, Warner also presented a goal of reducing the city’s property tax rate by one mill—one dollar of every $1,000 in assessed value—over 10 years, by cutting 0.1 mills each year, amounting to a cut of $800,000 in tax revenue each year from the operating budget.

Warner likely was responding to gripes that while the tax rate of $7.06 is a slight decrease from two years ago, residents would like it to be still lower. Delray Beach does remain comparatively far from the state limit of $10, but businesses choosing between Delray and Boca can see that the Boca’s rate is roughly 50 percent lower.

Cutting taxes, however, would require raising more revenue or reducing expenses. Administrators mentioned a goal of reducing expenses two percent. But 62 percent of Delray’s operating budget—it doesn’t include utilities and sanitation—goes for police and fire. Warner noted that new contracts, which the commission approved, award 4 percent raises. Reaching that two percent reduction goal, Mayor Cary Glickstein calculated correctly, would have to mean cutting the other 38 percent of city government by eight percent. Oh, and the city used $3.5 million in reserves to balance this year’s budget. That can’t keep happening.

Yet the city commission again gave $1.5 million from the operating budget to non-profits—charities. On that point, Warner said, “I surrender.” He is anticipating the same amount, even though it may be past time for those organizations to raise money on their own. The Delray Beach Library is independent, but it receives $5 million from the city and the community redevelopment agency. Warner asked if Delray Beach needs two public golf courses and two tennis centers.

As for more revenue, Warner mentioned parking. The city collects $2 million annually in parking revenue, but most of the city-owned parking is surface lots. What about more garages? What about higher rates for non-residents? “I want money from people I don’t know,” Warner said. Perhaps higher rates could double that $2 million.

Delray Beach owns some vacant lots and could sell them, but there aren’t many. Also, any money would be for one-time use, since it wouldn’t be recurring. The city could assess residents a fee for fire-rescue services, as Boca Raton does. The argument for a fee is that those homeowners who don’t pay property taxes—because they have homesteads worth less than the tax exemption limit of $50,000—would help pay for a key service. Warner said of the fee, however, “I’ve dropped it” because of public opposition. The commissioners didn’t ask him to pick it up.

Instead, they asked Warner why they had not received a department-by-department evaluation of staffing and spending. It was a fair point, but then Mitch Katz implied that the staff had done almost no review. To which Warner replied, “I know you’re not intentionally insulting us.” Katz later backed off a bit. That review is proceeding.

When I spoke on Monday with Glickstein, he tried to strike a balance. Administrators need to “better explain that each department is running efficiently” while he and the commissioners must acknowledge that “we will have to make some hard choices.”

Glickstein considered talk of a tax cut “premature.” The commission’s goal-setting meeting had focused on maximizing service levels in three areas: public safety, public works and parks/recreation and planning. Those departments must be “staffed adequately for the task at hand, and that changes.” Financial projections also can change. Warner based his on a 4 percent increase in property values and a 4.2 increase in other revenue. Both will depend on the economy.

City Manager Don Cooper said administrators will take the commission’s somewhat uncertain direction and be back on Aug. 12 with a proposed budget. The fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. “I think we’ll get there,” Glickstein said of the effort to align the commission’s wishes with the staff’s budget realities. Not without more counseling between now and August.

And the CRA again…

Within that budget discussion you could hear again the issue of money from downtown development in Delray Beach going not to the overall city but to the community redevelopment agency.

Warner spoke of possibly “redeploying” some of the $3.5 million in CRA spending. He noted that the property tax base within the CRA is increasing faster than the tax base elsewhere in Delray. The commission and the CRA board have agreed on minor changes, but the city won’t get its finances straight without major changes, which may require a round of commission-CRA counseling.

About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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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