Contract shortfall?

I now have seen the latest—not necessarily final— projections for savings to Boca Raton under the proposed fire and police contracts, and the number has come in low.

In December, a statement by the firefighters union announced that the firefighters and police officers had reached agreement on three-year contracts that would be retroactive to last Oct. 1. The unions have been working without a contract. The city declared an impasse last fall after negotiations stalled.

The proposed contracts include major changes in the police and fire pension programs. In that December statement, the International Association of Firefighters said the changes would save the city a combined $100 million over 30 years. Contributions from employees and cities fund municipal pension plans. Boca Raton worried that, without changes, the city’s contribution would rise so high as to result in budget cuts or tax increases.

According to the city’s actuary, however, the proposed contracts would save $92.8 million in pension costs through 2043—about $49 million from the police and about $43.8 million from fire. The police-fire pension program that now is funded at about 75 percent—a program is considered adequately funded at 80 percent—would be roughly 100 percent funded after 30 years. The timetable for calculating pension plan solvency usually is 30 years.

That certainly amounts to reform, but less reform than Boca Raton’s target of $100 million, which is what the firefighters union advertised. One of Mayor Susan Haynie’s main campaign promises last year was major pension reform. In an interview Wednesday, Haynie said City Manager Leif Ahnell “advised the council that the changes would result in $100 million in savings.”

Haynie intends to review the actuary’s report and discuss it with Ahnell. “I would like $100 million in savings,” she said. Councilman Robert Weinroth called the nearly 10 percent difference between what “we’ve been hearing” and the new projection “a little disappointing.”

I’ve also heard complaints from council members about the release of information related to the police and fire contracts. Approval was supposed to happen at Tuesday’s meeting, but the financial projections didn’t arrive until Monday, and the Fraternal Order of Police hasn’t held a ratification vote. The firefighters union ratified its contract on schedule. A police union representative told me Wednesday that the delay was because of “some wording in the contract.”

One big change is that police officers no longer could use overtime to calculate pension benefits. So union members no longer could steer overtime toward officers nearing retirement, giving them a windfall. The firefighters contract would cap annual pension benefits at $100,000 or 90 percent of monthly earnings, whichever is less.

But that lifetime benefit would increase 2 percent each year. Police officers and firefighters still would have cost-of-living adjustments to their pensions, something almost no private-sector employee enjoys. And those financial projections are based on the fire-police pension fund investments returning an average of 8 percent a year, after management fees are deducted.

The council, not just Haynie, has stressed the need for pension reform. The police-fire program just got its second rating of ‘D’ from the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University. The less-generous program for non-public safety employees got an ‘A.’ Haynie and the new council— which will include Jeremy Rodgers, elected this month to succeed Constance Scott—now must decide if the fire and police contracts rate high with them.

Savor the Avenue rain change

Rain played havoc with the recent Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens. Delray Beach doesn’t intend to let that happen to Savor the Avenue (a signature event for Boca Raton and Delray Beach magazines).

On Wednesday, participating restaurants were notifying those with reservations for tonight’s foodfest on Atlantic Avenue that the event had been postponed until Monday. Rain is forecast for today and Friday, which was the original rainout date.

FAU trustee news

Last week, Florida Atlantic University got one new member of the Board of Trustees and kept another.

The Board of Governors, which oversees the 11 state universities, reappointed Anthony Barbar. No surprise there. Barbar had just been kept on as board chairman, no doubt with the certainty of his reappointment.

The new member is Dr. Michael Dennis, founding chairman of the Schmidt College of Medicine Advisory Board. He has stayed in that role since the board’s inception four years ago.

For the last five years, Dr. Dennis has chaired the Palm Beach County Medical Society’s Future of Medicine Summit. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Dennis, and those summits have helped make Palm Beach County a leader in health care innovation. In an email, Dr. Dennis said “FAU leaders” encouraged him to apply for the trustee post. Good call by them and the Board of Governors.

Price shopping pays off

Speaking of health care, there’s new evidence that serious savings—with no reduction in care—could come from customers just being more engaged.

Medicare Part D, the prescription drug plan, has been around for about a decade. If you have coverage or help someone else get it—as I do for my mother-in-law—you know that the Part D website helpfully ranks all plans based on out-of-pocket costs. Each year, during the re-enrollment period, you can update a patient’s list of drugs and see if the same plan works better or if it makes sense to switch.

But according to researchers at Columbia and Yale, people don’t make that annual check once enrolled. According to the Brookings Institution, the researchers studied enrollment patterns and prices from 2007 to 2009. They concluded that enrollees paid an average of $536 more than if they had price-shopped. Assured of repeat business, insurers raised prices.

Oh, and the researchers also calculate that the failure to shop for cheaper plans costs the government an extra $550 million. Medicare Part D remains one of the most heavily subsidized federal programs.

A reprieve for the Ag Reserve

For now, the Palm Beach County Commission has no appetite for paving over the county’s coastal farm belt.

For roughly six hours Tuesday, the commission heard conflicting comments about the Agriculture Reserve Area, which covers 22,000 acres west of the Florida Turnpike between Clint Moore Road and Lantana Road. County staff and environmentalists told the commission that, as Deputy County Administrator Verdenia Baker put it, agriculture is “valuable and viable.” The reserve has everything from horse farms to nurseries to row crops, which include “peppers, cucumbers, squashes (sic), eggplant, lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, okra, cabbage, peas, herbs and niche crops such as organic farming or Asian vegetables.”

From the small farmers who want to sell their land for development, commissioners heard that agriculture in the Agricultural Reserve is dead. “A dinosaur,” one called it. Too much competition from elsewhere in Florida and abroad. Too much weather-related trouble in the last decade, from hurricanes to freezes. Too much suburban-type development that brings people who object to pesticide spraying and farm trucks. These critics wore shirts with the words “Forced to Farm” behind jail bars.

It’s true that the area’s master plan has allowed some subdivisions, a hospital and some schools. The plan has allowed two centers of commercial development, one of them being Delray Marketplace, which is about as rural as Mizner Park.

It’s also true, however, that many farmers in the reserve are doing well. It’s also true that those with the shirts aren’t forced to farm. They could sell their property now. But they want to sell it for more—to the most willing buyer: GL Homes, the major developer in and near the reserve. Allow the higher density that those landowners want, and the commission would set in motion the long-term collapse of agriculture in the Agricultural Reserve.

Fortunately, the commission made only minor moves. The staff will look for ways to give small landowners more development rights, but not nearly as many as they want. The staff also will look for ways to promote the unique nature of the reserve and to alert homebuyers that they won’t find West Boca. Commissioner/ex-Boca Mayor Steven Abrams said he heard from people who didn’t understand until after moving in that they were more in farm country than the suburbs.

One farmer claimed that the only “real stakeholders” in the debate are the farmers themselves. He’s wrong. Palm Beach County taxpayers spent $150 million on a land-buying program designed to preserve as much farming as possible in the Agricultural Reserve Area. Staff members told the commissioners that the effort has paid off, giving Palm Beach a place unique among Florida’s urban counties. If the commission allowed sprawl to take over, the commission would owe the public a refund.

Tuesday’s debate came after a year of buildup. The sense after the meeting was that nothing will happen soon. At this point, that means nothing bad will happen, which makes Tuesday mostly a success.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.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.