What’s on tap for FAU and other burning issues of the week

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FAU’s major donation

The last time Florida Atlantic University announced a major donation, things ended badly.

Accepting $6 million nearly two years ago to name the football stadium for GEO Group, the Boca Raton-based prison company brought FAU national embarrassment. Mary Jane Saunders’ inept response to the controversy cost her the presidency of FAU.

Today, FAU plans to announce what a Monday news release touted as the university’s “largest single gift” in its 50-plus-year history. The release says, “The gift will change the face of FAU’s Boca Raton campus. . .” We must assume that the gift is football-related, since Athletic Director Patrick Chun and Head Football Coach Charlie Partridge will be present at the 4 p.m. announcement, which will take place at the stadium.

If the gift is from the Schmidt Foundation or another longtime FAU patron, there will be no problems. If the source is new, one hopes that FAU did the checking that wasn’t done with GEO. The company had donated to FAU, but in a much more low-profile way. If this donation really is meant to “change the face” of FAU, one hopes that this time the wider community will like the face it sees.

Engineering a split?

FAU says the gift to be announced today is part of the university’s “pursuit of excellence.” Outside donations are more vital than ever, given Florida’s continuing pursuit of mediocrity when it comes to higher education.

According to a preliminary study for the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the 12-member State University System, it could cost as much as $1 billion to create separate engineering schools at Florida State University and Florida A&M University. The Legislature created the combined school in Tallahassee more than three decades ago, and it reportedly needs a significant public investment to continue as a joint effort.

During this year’s legislative session, John Thrasher proposed splitting the schools. At the time, Thrasher was a state senator. He’s now FSU’s president, having—ahem—engineered the appointment through his considerable political connections. Thrasher holds two FSU degrees.

FSU loves the idea of its own school. FAMU doesn’t. No surprise there. FSU’s school quickly would overwhelm the one at FAMU. Enrollment of FAMU students at the joint school has been decreasing. As news reports have noted, though, because FAMU is one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the split could be a violation of the Civil Rights Act.

The study notes that until 2001 disagreements between FSU and FAMU regarding the engineering school could be resolved by the Board of Regents, which oversaw the university system from a statewide perspective. In 2001, however, the Legislature—with Thrasher a big supporter— abolished the Regents and created individual boards of trustees at each university. It became every university for itself, leveraging its political power of the moment as the state cut overall funding to the universities.

After a campaign led by Bob Graham, Florida’s former governor and U.S. senator, voters created the Board of Governors in 2002, ostensibly to replace the Regents. But management of the system remains diffused and confusing. As every university tries to become more prestigious than another, higher education in Florida becomes less prestigious.

Boca pension hearings scheduled

Hearings on Boca Raton’s negotiations with police officers and firefighters have been scheduled.

The city declared an impasse after talks failed to resolve differences between Boca and the unions over the city’s pension and wage proposals. The two sides agreed on magistrates recommended by the Florida Public Employee Relations Commission to hear the disputes.

The hearing with the International Association of Firefighters will take place on Jan. 8. The hearing with the Fraternal Order of Police will take place six days later, both in City Hall. The magistrates will hear testimony, and then issue recommendations for resolving the disputes. If the city and the unions still can’t agree, the city council can impose its own resolution. Boca Raton is asking for major concessions from the unions to reduce unfunded pension liabilities. A recent survey graded the city’s police and fire pension fund ‘D’ in terms of solvency.

Solar flare-up

If you have been thinking of getting solar panels for your home, act soon.

Last week, the Florida Public Service Commission all but ended energy efficiency requirements for Florida Power & Light and the state’s three other investor-owned utilities. The companies had argued that the conservation programs were too expensive.

Because of the commission’s 3-2 vote, FPL will end its solar rebate program at the end of 2015. David Guest, the attorney who argued against the reductions on behalf of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told me that the average cost of a residential solar system is about $3 per watt, meaning that a system to power a home with high electricity use—more than $1,000 kilowatt hours per month —would cost between $27,000 and $30,000.

With the current 30 percent tax credit, Guest estimated that the system would pay for itself in 10 years. With the cost of solar dropping, continuing the tax credit would have allowed Floridians to take advantage of advances in technology. Though we live in Florida, only 2,565 of FPL’s 4.6 million customers in 35 counties have solar systems. That’s one-20th of one percent. With no incentive after next year, don’t expect that number to increase.

Enter Cooper and other Delray agenda items

At tonight’s meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission almost certainly will approve a contract with Don Cooper to be the new city manager, starting Jan. 5. The commission can do Cooper a favor even before he starts by not getting the city into the middle of a potential confrontation between a landowner and a little-known but important public agency.

Also on tonight’s agenda is a request to rezone roughly 8.5 acres on North Federal Highway from commercial to residential to accommodate a 188-unit apartment complex called Delray Preserve. The unoccupied site once was home to the Delray Swap Shop—Autonation Volvo is on the north side—and has been accurately described as “blighted.” City staff recommends approval of the project—seven apartment units and a clubhouse, according to the preliminary site plan—as part of the North Federal Highway Improvement Plan that Delray Beach created 16 years ago.

Between the property and the Intracoastal Waterway, however, is an 11-acre site owned by the Florida Inland Navigation District, known by the acronym FIND. Check your property tax bill, and you will find a line with a tiny amount levied for the agency, whose job is to keep traffic moving on the Intracoastal.

FIND uses the Delray land to deposit material from dredging. The material is processed and trucked away. For that purpose, FIND needs easy access to the site. At this point, according to documents associated with Delray Preserve, FIND and the developer have not worked out access to the agency’s satisfaction.

Approval of Delray Preserve would be based on 11 conditions the developer must meet. Most of them are under the city’s control and supervision. The 11th would be to provide paved access for the navigation district. That is not under the city’s control.

At least one commissioner, Shelly Petrolia, believes that Delray Beach should tell the developer to work out the dispute with FIND before the city approves the development. Petrolia also was the only vote last July against allowing the project to increase in density to 22 units per acre. Petrolia has other issues with how the city hands out such conditional uses, but that’s for another day. Her point that Delray should avoid potential entanglement in legal proceedings is a good one. While Delray could delay this until review of the final site plan, a better option would be to postpone approval until FIND is satisfied.

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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.

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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.