By Mary Hladky and Steve Plunkett
The City Council has denied a request by the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District to be exempted from making annual tax payments to the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency that have been used to pay off Mizner Park bond debt.
The district had sought to be relieved of this financial obligation, which is just one of many bones of contention between the city and district.
District commissioners, meeting six days after the council’s unanimous Nov. 10 vote, voiced their disapproval of the council’s action.
Commissioner Craig Ehrnst said city staff’s “circus” presentation omitted any feedback from the district and that Briann Harms, the district’s executive director, was “unfairly muted.”
“Those kinds of things don’t play well and I think it’s unfortunate,” he said.
A 1986 interlocal agreement between the CRA and district obligated the district to make payments for acquiring, operating and maintaining park and recreational districts in the downtown.
It was amended in 1989 to allow the CRA to use the district payments to help pay off $68 million in bonds that financed the construction of Mizner Park, which opened in 1991.
But those bonds were paid off in March 2019, and the district contends there is no need to continue making payments. This year’s payment was $1.4 million.
Instead, the district wants to use the money to pay for park and recreation projects in the city and district. The district’s boundaries include the city and areas west of the city limits to Florida’s Turnpike.
In a June 30 letter to City Manager Leif Ahnell, Harms noted that the district, under pressure from the City Council, opted not to increase its tax rate in 2019, leaving it financially strained. If exempted from making the tax payments, the district would be better able to pay for park projects, she said.
But city officials countered that the district is not entitled to an exemption.
The satisfaction of Mizner Park debt does not negate the district’s obligation since the money also may be used for acquiring and operating park and recreation facilities within the CRA, Ahnell said in Nov. 2 memorandum to council members.
The district also failed to provide additional information that could have buttressed its argument, the memo said.
If the district were to stop its payments, the CRA would lose nearly $7.5 million that the district is obligated to pay through 2024-2025, Ahnell said at the Nov. 10 meeting.
Council members voted to deny the district’s request with little discussion.
“Obligations are obligations,” said Mayor Scott Singer.
They insisted their decision does not signal their unwillingness to work with district officials on park and recreation projects.
“We will continue to work together,” Singer said. “We appreciate your partnership.”
At the district’s Nov. 16 meeting, Harms said part of the district’s rationale in seeking to end the CRA payment was a 2019 audit of the agency showing a healthy reserve fund.
But in between April, when she started the application, and September, the city saddled the agency with bills for Mizner Park and CRA maintenance “all the way back to 1996.”
“And they’re going to start charging for holiday lights and the skate park and Memorial Park,” she said, leading her to believe the council will extend the CRA’s existence past 2025.
Commissioner Steve Engel agreed with that assessment and said municipalities are “very, very reluctant” to give up revenue streams.
“They’ll squirm and do all kinds of acrobatics to keep the money,” Engel said.
Ehrnst said the current arrangement is unfair to district residents who live west of the city limits and must pay nonresident rates to use the Downtown Library and the parks and tennis courts around City Hall.
Harms said she began to discuss making the fees equitable when she realized city staffers would not approve the application, but they “rejected any notion that district residents should be treated fairly.”
Commissioner Robert Rollins disputed Singer’s characterization of the city-district relationship.
“As an organization that continues to refer to us as a partner, it doesn’t make me feel like I’m very much a partner in this deal,” Rollins said. Ú