By Steve Plunkett
The short era of the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District’s rubber-stamping the city’s proposed parks budget appears to be over.
Craig Ehrnst, one of the district’s new commissioners, led the first assault. The city wants $16.9 million in the coming year to operate and maintain district parks and Boca Raton’s Red Reef Park and Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, up from $15.6 million it expects to spend this year.
“We can’t give them a blank check,” said Ehrnst, who is corporate treasurer at NCCI Holdings Inc. and ran for a district seat last year in part on a pledge to boost cooperation between the district and the city. “That, to me, is an unrealistic budget, and it’s also to me not a very good stewardship of taxpayer money.”
Ehrnst complained that some items that would lower the budget request were missing, such as the installation next April of artificial turf at Patch Reef Park, which should lower maintenance costs. He also said Mickey Gomez, the city’s recreation services director, should be at the district meeting to explain the budget request.
Commission Chairman Robert Rollins said Gomez usually attends the district’s budget discussions.
“I have to tell you, it gets pretty hot at these meetings, because there’s not always agreement with the budget,” Rollins said.
Gomez was on vacation and missed the district’s subsequent meeting July 26. That did not deter Ehrnst, who noted the city’s operating budget was $13 million in fiscal 2014, $13.4 million in 2015 and $14.6 million in 2016.
Ehrnst called the $16.9 million request “unrealistic” and suggested giving the city $16 million.
“Last year the approved [amount] was $16.3 million but they never spent it. They’re not even close to spending it,” he said. “So $16 million gives them enough, assumes they spend the same as they did this year and gives them another $400,000-plus increase for inflation, whatever it is.”
Rollins embraced Ehrnst’s approach.
“I like it better than trying to go through it each individual park,” he said. “I think there’s still some fluff in there.”
Rollins emphasized he has no complaints about how city workers do their jobs.
“The parks are in as good a condition as I’ve ever seen them with the number that we’re paying them to do this project,” he said. “I’ve never been happier.”
Commissioners decided to set a tentative rate for property taxes of 91.47 cents per $1,000 of taxable value. They will have more budget discussions on Aug. 9, 14 and 30. Public hearings will take place in September.
Last year, in the heat of the election season, commissioners approved the city’s budget request in full with little comment. In earlier years they insisted that Gomez postpone some purchases and hold the line on other items.