By Steve Plunkett
After first proposing a nearly 36% tax increase, then trimming it to a 19.43% hike, commissioners of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District succumbed to pressure from the City Council and kept their tax rate the same.
“But be aware, even if we don’t have a millage rate increase this year, it’s coming,” Commissioner Steve Engel said, anticipating a similar financial squeeze in 2020. “I’m lucky I still have my arms in my sockets they way they’ve been pulled in each direction.”
The tax rate approved Oct. 1 is the same as the previous three budget years, $0.9147 per $1,000 of taxable value, but effectively raises taxes 3.85%. It will give commissioners a $39.5 million budget with $3.5 million in reserves for capital improvements.
The district’s final budget hearing stretched out over six days after Commissioner Craig Ehrnst offered three solutions at what was meant to be the final hearing Sept. 25 and then moved to recess the meeting until Oct. 1 to let district and city officials negotiate his suggestions.
But when the hearing resumed, District Chair Susan Vogelgesang said Florida’s Sunshine Law had kept the two sides from talking.
How to move forward on the district’s planned $19.9 million Boca National Golf Course remains the bone of contention.
Ehrnst proposed the city taking over the golf project entirely — building and operating the golf course while reimbursing the district what it had spent so far, including the $24 million price of the land — or the district building the east side of the course at first and selling a hotel site on the property, then building the 18-hole course slowly, over two to six years.
His third option was to put a referendum on next March’s ballot for a $45 million to $55 million bond to cover the golf course and land purchase plus $20 million to $25 million to build a new Gumbo Limbo Nature Center and $3 million for the district’s share of constructing maintenance facilities at the city’s Spanish River and DeHoernle parks.
“The goal for all three options is no millage change,” Ehrnst said.
Commissioner Erin Wright said she had a “really super productive meeting” earlier that day with City Council member Andy Thomson, who led the city’s opposition to the golf project’s price, and Wayne Branthwaite of the Price/Fazio design team.
“We got together and we did line item by line item and we got the price down. … And it would still be a great golf course for the residents of Boca,” she said. “You all know, if we got the price down and Andy Thomson’s on board, it must be nice.”
Boca Raton resident and golf professional Rick Heard, who helped Wright and Thomson trim the plan, said Oct. 1 the new price tag was $15 million.
Residents and three City Council members filled the Willow Theatre at Sugar Sand Park for the second round of the budget hearing. Thomson and Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers were among three dozen residents who spoke up, with 23 against raising taxes.
The scene was similar to the Sept. 25 session, when residents and all five council members packed the meeting room at the Swim and Racquet Club and spilled into the hallway. Four council members and roughly two dozen other people spoke, only six favored higher taxes.
“I’m really at a loss for words,” Commissioner Robert Rollins said. “After 2 ½, 3 years of dealing with the public, I see a different public here this evening. I wish they’d been out during our deliberations when we were talking about the purchase of the golf course.”
Jim Sumislaski, the Kimley-Horn consultant hired by the city to re-evaluate the district’s efforts, appeared representing the anti-tax views of 75 Boca East Estates homeowners.
“I think the city has come up with a very good offer that you should seriously accept and take,” he said.
Mayor Scott Singer said the city remains committed to having an exceptional golf course for Boca Raton residents.
“Our point of view — we heard yours too — a tax increase is not the only solution. As long as you know that, then we’re here to support you with financing and other resources,” Singer said, adding “We’ll try to all communicate better.”
The council the night before took the dramatic step of approving a resolution declaring its opposition “to the proposed, significant, tax rate increase being considered by the district” and reaffirming its offers to help finance the golf project.
“We’ve seen four things that are falling out right now, and it’s my fear that that’s just the first of many dominoes of other obligations,” Rodgers said, referring to four city-requested projects totaling $811,000 that the district voted in August not to fund. “I’m so upset by this situation; it’s really not right for our residents. It’s ridiculous.”
The city’s communications and marketing division promptly posted the resolution on Boca Raton’s website and noted the time and location of the district’s budget hearing.
A resident of the Boca Teeca condominiums encircling the old golf course complained that she received two emails and a robo-call telling her to show up and oppose the district’s plan.
Rodgers said he had paid for the robo-call with $400 in personal funds.
“I really wanted to get the word out, and I think it worked,” Rodgers said after commissioners voted.
The budget hearing followed a 3 ½-hour joint meeting Sept. 12 of the City Council and Beach and Park Commission that mostly resulted in both sides scheduling another joint meeting for November.
At their first budget hearing on Sept. 11, commissioners reduced their tentative 35.7% tax increase to 19.43%. Only 10 residents spoke, six in support of higher taxes.
Throughout it all, commissioners and council members noted the strained relationship; some compared it to a broken marriage.
“I just really feel very disheartened about how we are going to move forward in this relationship and this partnership when there doesn’t seem to be any cohesion or common ground almost,” council member Andrea O’Rourke said at one point.
“What I see is no room or parallel plan but them going in one direction and us going in the other. And believe me, I would rather see it go like this,” Engel said, holding his index fingers beside each other, “and not as a head-on collision where there’s a car wreck.”