Monday, April 15, 2024

Update on Delray heroin-sober house issue, Staples-Office-Depot merger and Boca high schools rock

Delray’s heroin problem

Numbers don’t always tell everything. With what Police Chief Jeffrey Goldman calls Delray Beach’s heroin “epidemic,” however, numbers tell a lot.

In an interview Monday, Goldman said Delray Beach experienced 195 drug overdoses all of last year. During the first three months of this year, he said, there were 163. Fifteen people have died from drug overdoses in 2016—11 of them from heroin.

Given those numbers, Goldman “challenged” the narcotics unit to craft a response. The resulting Operation Street Sweeper has made 28 arrests as of Monday for heroin dealing. “There are still more out there,” Goldman said. Between January 2015 and March 2016, the city has made 109 heroin arrests.

No issue generates more talk in Delray. The department has received “lots of complaints” about open drug sales. Happening where? “Everywhere,” Goldman said. “There is not one neighborhood that is not affected.” One of those arrested was giving out free heroin. Goldman said the arrests haven’t revealed any organization behind the dealing. “Entrepreneurship,” he said glumly.

There is no question why dealers are targeting Delray Beach. The city is home to what Goldman estimates—no doubt conservatively—about 200 sober houses, known formally as recovery residences. Their occupants are addicts who have completed treatment and want to live where they supposedly receive support to stay clean.

The intent may be good, but sleazy operators have infested Delray Beach and other South Florida communities. They bleed as much money as possible from patients and then dump them. Because of a 1999 finding by the federal departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development that those in recovery are disabled, local governments can’t regulate sober houses. Operators don’t even have to register.

Delray Beach draws sober houses because of the climate, the city’s popularity and the availability of jobs on Atlantic Avenue. Sober house residents—especially those in badly supervised operations—are vulnerable to pushers.

The unanswered question is why the epidemic has happened now. “I’m scratching my head on that,” Goldman said. It’s been nearly a decade since The New York Times labeled Delray Beach as the sober house capital of Florida.

One theory is that the successful crackdown on pill millsz—clinics that trafficked in painkillers—caused a resurgence in heroin. Like oxycodone, it’s an opioid. Those who had abused painkillers—or taken some of their parents’ supply—found a new high.

Whatever the reason, Goldman said the department needed to take “a new approach.” The arrests are just one part. Goldman acknowledges that many dealers won’t be off the streets very long. “That’s a whole other issue” in the criminal justice system.

If there’s profit in dealing drugs, however, there’s more profit in gaming the sober house system through needless drug tests that insurance companies have been paying. Though that scheme is not a normal priority of local police, Goldman said he is meeting today with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office to learn how the department can undertake the “time-consuming” work of investigating insurance fraud.

The department also is checking for repeat overdoses at the same address. “If you have three or four,” Goldman said, “what the hell are you doing?” In some cases, officers have discovered that absentee owners didn’t know to whom their houses were being rented.

“It is very difficult to police this population,” Goldman said. Other numbers underscore his comment. Of the roughly 20,000 police reports in 2015, the department estimates that 6 percent related to sober houses. Another 500 to 600 calls, Goldman said, don’t lead to reports but are tied to “this industry.” Parents in distant states are asking about children living in sober houses. Officers chasing sober house complaints can’t deal with other public safety issues.

Delray Beach and other cities need help from above. Last year, the Florida Legislature prohibited treatment centers from referring patients to sober houses that hadn’t voluntarily registered with the state. This year, however, the Legislature backed off a bill to regulate sober house marketing practices, which include offers of free rent. Instead, a state attorney’s task force will study the issue.

At the federal level, the Florida congressional delegation meets Thursday to discuss the state’s heroin problem. U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, who represents Delray, will meet with city officials on May 2. The heroin epidemic is nationwide, but it’s hardly come up during the presidential campaign.

Though the department’s recent actions have encouraged him, Goldman calls them “a very small start to a big problem.” Goldman guesses that Delray Beach has “thousands” of sober house beds. Until the federal government closes the sober house regulation loophole, Delray Beach won’t even know the actual numbers it’s dealing with.

Height limits and chabad in Boca

At tonight’s meeting, the Boca Raton City Council likely will approve a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in trying to address a political problem.

It began last year, when the council approved Chabad East Boca on Palmetto Park Road near the beach. Many neighbors opposed the project. Some have channeled that opposition into lawsuits seeking to overturn the approval.

The zoning category for that section of Palmetto Park Road is B-1. The height limit is 30 feet, but applicants can get up to 50 feet if they meet certain conditions. Chabad East Boca would be about 40 feet, to accommodate its exhibit hall. After the vote, Mayor Susan Haynie asked city staff to examine zoning designations that allow commercial development next to single-family-home neighborhoods.

The proposals before the council would limit buildings in B-1 areas to 30 feet. Throughout the city, however, no project in a B-1 area is above 30 feet except for Chabad East Boca. The chabad approval lasts two years, but the clock hasn’t started because of the lawsuit.

Development Services Director Ty Harris notes that no developer has a “right” to 50 feet—just the right to ask for it. The changes also would modify height rules in the other affected areas, most of which are along Second Avenue in the north end of the city and on Dixie Highway and Federal Highway south of Camino Real. The new rules could affect redevelopment of those properties.

Even if the council backs the changes, the action likely would not mollify the chabad’s harshest critics. Even success in court might not do that. The political problem would remain. Haynie has noted that beachfront neighborhoods declined the city’s offer several years ago of a zoning change. Those with the loudest voices, though, can have the shortest memories.

Staples-Office Depot merger

The Staples-Office Depot merger is now up to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, and one news report suggested that Sullivan is leaning toward Staples.

Testimony in the bench trial ended this month. The Federal Trade Commission is seeking to block the $6.3 billion merger of Staples and Boca Raton-based Office Depot on the grounds that it would reduce competition for large, corporate buyers of office products. Sullivan will rule on Staples’ motion to dismiss the FTC’s lawsuit.

Staples’ attorney called no witnesses, saying the government had failed to prove its case. According to a report in Bloomberg News, Sullivan seemed to agree. He asked why the agency excluded ink and toner from its calculations as to how the merger might affect prices.

If Sullivan rules for the government, Staples will call off the merger. Either way, there will be uncertainly over Office Depot’s presence in Boca. Staples would keep the new company’s headquarters in Massachusetts. Some jobs might remain here. If the merger fails, all the Office Depot jobs would stay, but there would be questions about how many jobs the company keeps. Both CEOs say the merger is necessary to compete with discount retailers.

Boca’s high schools still ranked

U.S. News and World Report began rating colleges years ago. The magazine now also rates high schools, and three area schools did well on the new list.

Boca Raton High School ranked 42nd in Florida and 622nd nationally. Spanish River came it at 46th and 665th, while Atlantic High ranked 72nd and 970th. The list includes roughly 21,500 high schools. U.S. News bases its rankings on such categories as Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate offerings, graduation rates compared to the national rate of 68 percent and test scores of African-American and Hispanic students compared to similar groups in that state.

The highest rankings in Palm Beach County went to Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach—ninth and 57th— and Alexander Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach—10th and 66th.

Pay raises and special elections for council vacancies?

One proposed charter change for Boca Raton—to raise salaries for the mayor and council members—will be on the Aug. 30 state primary ballot. Tonight, the city council will start discussing another.

Councilman Scott Singer has proposed an ordinance under which mayoral and council vacancies that arise mid-term would be filled by special election, not by the council choosing someone to serve until the next scheduled election. The special election would take place roughly two months after the seat became vacant.

As with the zoning issue discussed earlier, this seems like a solution in search of a problem. The council last filled a seat by appointment in late 2008, when Peter Baronoff resigned because of his wife’s illness, and that vacancy occurred shortly before a scheduled election.

In that instance, the council chose Mike Mullaugh from about 20 applicants. Mullaugh was elected without opposition in 2009 to complete the two years left on Baronoff’s term and without opposition to a full, three-year term in 2011. He won a second, final term in 2014 against three opponents.

One can use Mullaugh’s case to argue that a council appointment gives someone an edge in the next election. And, of course, there has been recent criticism from meeting regulars that the council doesn’t sufficiently involve the public in decision-making. An election just to fill a vacancy, however, would cost between $80,000 and $100,000, according to City Manager Leif Ahnell’s memo to the council. Would that kind of money make sense for a solution in search of a problem?

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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