Sunday, April 14, 2024

Union news, ag reserve talks and the ongoing inspector general issue

Union contract update

At tonight’s meeting, the Boca Raton City Council was supposed to approve contracts with unions representing the city’s police officers and firefighters. At least, that was the plan a month ago.

It won’t happen. Though the International Association of Firefighters Local 1560 ratified its contract a few days ago, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 has not ratified. There is a pension item on the agenda, but it’s a minor matter. In a text message sent Monday, Councilman Robert Weinroth said approval of the contracts has been pushed back to April. An executive session of the council to review an actuarial report on the two contracts—a study of how the changes would affect Boca Raton’s long-term finances— had been scheduled for Monday, but it was cancelled. The city didn’t receive that study until late Monday morning from the city’s actuaries in Fort Myers.

The late-December news release announcing agreement on the two contracts—after the city declared an impasse with the unions— came from the firefighters. IAFF Local 1560 Vice President Matt Welhaf told me Monday that his union’s ratification was “overwhelming,” and that with regard to protecting Boca Raton’s finances the deal takes “a significant bite of the apple.”

According to Welhaf, the city’s contribution to the pension fund would average 18 percent over the next 30 years – the city’s target. “We did what we were asked,” Welhaf said. The report from the Police & Firefighters Pension Board actuary, Welhaf claimed, will show fire pension reductions of $50 million over that 30-year period. The December announcement touted $100 million in pension savings from both contracts.

According to the email from the consultants to the city, the 30-year projections that would confirm that $100 million in savings are complete but awaiting peer review. The study shows a decline in city contributions to police and fire pensions of roughly $2 million in the first year. That would be just $60 million over 30 years, but Welhaf says the savings increase dramatically in the third year of the contract. He sent me a 30-year study from the consultants—dated four days earlier than the report that arrived Monday. It shows roughly $94 million in savings over 30 years and leaves the police-fire pension fund 100 percent funded.

I will have more about this on Thursday after checking with the actuaries who prepared the report. As for the police union’s failure to ratify, my calls to the union representative were not returned.

Lease proposal in the works

One of the Boca Raton City Council’s top priorities is negotiating a favorable lease for a Houston’s restaurant on the Wildflower Property at Northeast Fifth Avenue and Palmetto Park Road. At Monday’s council workshop, City Manager Leif Ahnell said staff hoped to present a lease proposal to the council by early summer. Ahnell also said the city is seeking a consultant to conduct a traffic study of that intersection and the effect from opening the restaurant.

Ag Reserve talks

There will be no votes today when the Palm Beach County Commission discusses the Agricultural Reserve Area, but we still could learn if the commission seriously wants to keep a unique part of the county unique.

For 20 years, the county has tried to keep as much farming as possible in the roughly 21,000 acres between Clint Moore Road and Lantana Road west of the turnpike. The county approved a master plan in 1995. When development still began pushing west as it did west of Boca Raton, voters in 1999 approved $100 million in bonds to buy land. The goal was to keep roughly 60 percent of the 21,000 acres in some kind of agriculture.

To a reasonable degree, that has happened, even as the rules have allowed some homes and two commercial centers. For a year, however, owners of smaller farms and nurseries have pushed for changes. They can sell to developers, but there are density limits on their property. They want those limits loosened, claiming that they can’t make money in agriculture. They have formed a political action committee called Forced to Farm. Aiding these landowners has been GL Homes, the biggest developer in and near the reserve.

A year ago, the county commission asked for an update, which has led to community meetings and roundtables that mostly have shown, to no one’s surprise, that farmers want a windfall and preservationists want no changes. The first is unacceptable, and the second may be self-defeating.

If the goal—as it should be—is to stick with what the public intended 16 years ago, the county should try to offer incentives that would help some of the unhappy farmers. Even that might not satisfy those who wish they had sold their property as part of the bond plan when there was money, but it would get the priorities right.

That farmland provides jobs, local produce and water storage. But trying to control development in South Florida can be like trying to lasso the wind.

The Palm Beach Post reported Sunday on a Senate bill that would allow increased development on 5,000 acres in remote northwest Palm Beach County. GL Homes owns that land. One theory is that GL Homes is pushing the legislation to set up the property as trade bait for a large parcel in the Agricultural Reserve. Such a trade would destroy any chance to preserve farming.

There’s much at stake in this debate. We should know today if the county commission intends to surrender or break out the lasso.

Censoring climate change

As news organizations have reported, top administrators at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection ordered staff members never to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” Gov. Rick Scott has denied issuing any such order, but former DEP employees have gone public about such censorship occurring in a state already facing the effects of rising seas.

There also was evidence last week that Scott’s policy of denial extends beyond the DEP.

Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon was testifying before a Florida Senate subcommittee. The topic was federal money to help states issue timely disaster warnings.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, was asking Koon about a new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirement that states have climate change plans to qualify for federal money. Koon said he understood that FEMA is asking for “language to that effect.”

Clemens responded that since the governor is so resistant to the use of “climate change” and global warming,” perhaps Clemens could propose an alternative “atmospheric reemployment.”

The crowd cracked up. The governor is known for answering almost every question from a reporter with a talking point about jobs. Koon mostly kept a straight face, acknowledging that the state’s next plan—due in 2018— “will be required to have language discussing that issue.”

“What issue is that?” Clemens asked.

Dodged Koon, “The issue you mentioned earlier regarding. . .climate.”

There was a bigger laugh, and Clemens was done. But the joke is on Florida if cities like Delray Beach and agencies like the South Florida Water Management District and academic institutions like Florida Atlantic University are studying the effect of something that state government pretends isn’t happening.

Inspector general appeal?

Last week, I wrote of the court ruling against 14 cities—Boca Raton and Delray Beach among them—that sued Palm Beach County over paying for the Office of Inspector General. I reported that there is fairly strong sentiment in Delray Beach for withdrawing from the lawsuit, but in Boca I heard only from Councilman Mike Mullaugh. While he supported the lawsuit when it was filed in late 2011, Mullaugh seems disinclined to appeal.

I have since heard from Councilman Robert Weinroth. He wrote, “I am personally of the opinion that we should pay up and move forward.” Weinroth has asked City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser for how much Boca’s continued involvement might cost “with the hope of convincing my fellow council members to join me in resolving this.”

One of those council members, Scott Singer, told me of his worry that if the lawsuit fails the county would have a precedent to impose any number of costs on cities—so-called “unfunded mandates.” In fact, the cities will have nothing to worry about if the ruling stands.

The cities must pay their share of the inspector general’s expenses because voters in every city imposed that requirement in 2010. The county pays only for the expense of overseeing county government.

County Attorney Denise Nieman is the other side of the lawsuit from the cities. Nevertheless, she was right when she told me that for Singer’s scenario to come true, there would have be a similar referendum in every city. In the highly unlikely event that the county commission made such an attempt to shift costs, city voters obviously would see the plot for what it was and reject it.

Boca Raton and Delray Beach residents understood what they were asking for in 2010—outside oversight. With a new Boca council and a new Delray commission should come new attitudes on carrying out the voters’ will.

••••••••

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.

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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