Boca Raton: District asks out of Mizner payments to city to free money for parks

By Mary Hladky

The Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District wants to stop making payments to the city to pay off a Mizner Park bond debt, and instead wants to redirect the money to park improvement projects.
The district asked the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency to relieve it of its payment obligations in a Sept. 20 letter, but did not receive a response, district attorney Jacob Horowitz said at a Dec. 16 meeting.
While district commissioners voted 4-0, with Commissioner Robert Rollins absent, to make a $1.4 million payment to the CRA for the 2019-20 fiscal year, they also agreed to send a second letter renewing their request to be exempted from making any more payments. That letter was delivered to the city on Dec. 23.
The City Council, whose members also sit as CRA commissioners, has the authority to exempt the district from making the payments, the most recent letter states.
If the City Council refuses, the district would seek legal advice on how to end the obligation, Executive Director Briann Harms said in an email.
The issue could become another bone of contention between the city and the district, which are now are at odds over how to build the Boca National golf course.
The CRA was created in the early 1980s to breathe new life into the then-moribund downtown. Its first major project was the development of Mizner Park, which replaced a failing mall and became an attractive downtown destination.
A 1986 interlocal agreement between the district and the city obligated the district to make payments for acquiring, operating and maintaining park and recreational facilities in the downtown.
The agreement was amended in 1989 to allow the CRA to use the district payments to pay off $68 million in bonds that financed the Mizner Park project. Mizner Park opened in 1991.
Since those bonds were paid off in March, it is an appropriate time to seek a new arrangement, the district said in the September and December letters.
The December letter includes two other reasons why the district should not have to make further payments.
Thirteen percent of the district’s tax revenue comes from residents living outside the city’s boundaries, but they have received no benefit from the payments to the CRA because they pay higher non-resident rates at recreation facilities located within the CRA, which encompasses Boca Raton’s downtown area.
The district is also strapped for money because, under pressure from the City Council, commissioners voted against raising the tax rate last year.
Exempting the district from making additional payments will “allow the district to utilize these funds in other ways that will continue to benefit the citizens and residents that we both serve,” the letter states.
City spokeswoman Chrissy Gibson said that the district’s request will be discussed at a Jan. 23 joint meeting between City Council members and district commissioners. The matter also could come up at the Jan. 13 City Council meeting.
In other business:
• Commissioners voted 4-0 to approve an employment agreement with Harms, who became executive director in October after serving as interim executive director since February.
Harms replaces veteran district official Art Koski, who was reassigned to be construction manager of the Boca National public golf course one year ago. He also served as a consultant until the commission ended his contract in October.
Harms’ annual base salary is $105,000, with a 3% cost-of- living adjustment taking effect on Jan. 1. Her monthly car allowance is $500. Her salary cannot exceed $150,000.
Her compensation is below the $120,000 Koski earned as executive director at the time he was reassigned.
“I want to thank you all for your support over the last year,” Harms said as she was applauded by commissioners and the audience.
“I think she has done a very good job,” District Chair Susan Vogelgesang said after the meeting. “She is very thorough.”
• Commissioners also voted 4-0 to approve rules governing how district meetings are conducted, similar to rules other elected bodies have.
The rules include a public decorum policy, first proposed by Commissioner Steven Engel in October, that govern conduct by commissioners and members of the pubic attending district meetings.
Engel said he decided rules were needed after a heated conversation between District Vice Chair Erin Wright and Koski in July, but his decision was reinforced by behavior of an audience member during and after a November meeting in which a commissioner felt threatened.
That incident has prompted commissioners to have a police presence at some of their meetings.
The policy states that members of the public and commissioners shall treat each other with courtesy and refrain from “rude and derogatory remarks, reflection as to integrity, abusive comments, and statements as to motives and personalities.”
Anyone who disrupts a meeting and does not heed a warning to stop will be removed by a police officer and is subject to arrest.

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