By Rich Pollack
After months of negotiating with state officials, Highland Beach finally has the green light to go ahead with long-awaited safety improvements to eight crosswalks on State Road A1A.
The town already has engineering reports and even has bids from two companies willing to do the job.
There’s only one holdup.
“We have everything we need to go forward,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie told commissioners during a meeting this month. “We just need money.”
How the town gets that money is up for debate, and the issue won’t be decided until after a new commissioner and new mayor are installed later this month.
Among funding options that surfaced during the March 3 commission meeting were holding a referendum to ask residents for permission to spend several hundred thousand dollars on the project, scaling down the project or asking condominium associations to cover some or all of the cost of the crosswalk in front of their buildings.
The project as it currently stands includes embedded lights at all crosswalks, pedestrian-activated flashing yellow beacons on the sides of the road and repainting and re-striping crosswalks to make them more visible.
With just about all of the approvals in hand, the town received a cost estimate from engineers of about $400,000 for the entire project, but when bids were opened last month the lowest was $771,000 and the highest was $994,997.
“The current pricing in marketplace caught us by surprise,” Labadie said.
Labadie said the town had hoped to pay for the project without having to hold a referendum by using sales tax funds and a hoped-for direct appropriation from the Florida Legislature. Highland Beach has a spending cap that requires voter approval for any project over $350,000.
Labadie said the town has $270,000 from the sales tax money set aside for the project and is hoping to get $201,573 more from the state. The direct appropriation, attorneys say, would not figure into the $350,000 spending cap because it could be used only for the crosswalk project.
With the price coming in higher than expected and requiring more than the money already planned for the project, however, the town will more than likely need to ask for voter approval if it decides to complete the entire project.
Should the issue go to voters in November and they approve the project, Labadie said there’s a good chance it could be paid for in its entirety with little impact on property tax dollars, since the town will be receiving an estimated $260,000 a year for several more years from the sales tax fund.
“The discretionary sales tax fund could cover the entire cost of the project, without incurring debt or raising taxes and without long-term impact to our cash reserves,” he said.
However, not all members of the current commission see asking residents to pay for the entire project as the right idea, with some asking for additional information, including a breakdown of the cost per crosswalk.
Some also questioned the disparity of more than $200,000 in the bids and asked Labadie to look into the difference.
If the town were to scale back the project rather than go to a referendum, the embedded lights and the enhanced repainting of the crosswalks would be eliminated.
During the meeting, one suggestion was to have the town pay for the basic improvements and ask residents of adjacent condominiums to pay for the additional enhancements if they wanted them.
Receiving FDOT approval for crosswalk improvements was a major hurdle the town overcame, and town leaders are optimistic the Legislature will pay for a portion of the project.
A direct appropriation request, sponsored by Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, and Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Boca Raton, passed through several committees and is in the state’s proposed budget.
Caruso is optimistic.
“I think Highland Beach is positioned very well to get the full funding,” he said. “It’s all about the safety of the residents.”