12345030670?profile=RESIZE_710xLongtime Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell, who retired Dec. 31, shares a light moment with his deputy and successor George Brown during an event for city staff. Photo provided

By Mary Hladky

Boca Raton has profoundly changed over the last 24 years. But there was one constant: City Manager Leif Ahnell.

Ahnell’s long tenure, described by his longtime deputy George Brown as “unprecedented,” ended on Dec. 31 when he retired three months earlier than expected and Brown took over the reins.

Brown and City Council members paid tribute to Ahnell on Dec. 12, their last meeting of the year, highlighting what council member Marc Wigder said was his “financial wizardry.”

Council members past and present have lauded his financial acumen and credited him with maintaining the city’s strong financial position, finding creative ways to save the city money, and balancing the cost of the city’s growth with the council’s emphasis on keeping a low tax rate.

He tightened procedures in the budget office and helped establish long-range financial planning and dedicated reserves to meet future financial needs, Brown said.

City staff members recognized Ahnell’s work by creating a special cover for this fiscal year’s budget report.

“His 33-year commitment to financial stewardship not only influenced the advancement of Boca Raton as a beautiful, safe, and vibrant coastal community, but it also laid a strong foundation for the city’s prosperous future,” they wrote.

Ahnell joined the city as an accountant in 1990. He then served as controller/treasurer, director of the Office of Management and Budget and assistant city manager before becoming city manager in 1999.

In that job, he oversaw seven departments, 70 divisions, nearly 2,000 employees and a $1.1 billion annual budget.

He is a certified public accountant, certified public finance officer and certified government finance officer. He has two bachelor degrees, in accounting and finance, from Florida Atlantic University.

Ahnell’s final salary was $318,000 a year, compared to $291,000 for the city manager of larger West Palm Beach and $230,000 in smaller Delray Beach.

During his time in the top job, the city’s population grew from 73,000 to nearly 100,000, the roster of corporate headquarters in the city increased to 75 and the city’s demographics changed as young families moved to the city and children jam-packed its schools.

The city’s downtown was transformed by new condos, rentals and retail, a Brightline train station was built on the edge of downtown and a performing arts complex, the Center for Arts and Innovation, will invigorate Mizner Park when it is completed as early as 2028.

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Leif Ahnell shunned publicity as manager but got consistently high marks. ‘So much of what he does is behind the scenes ... and in many instances never appreciated,’ says council member Fran Nachlas. Photo provided

Ahnell shied away from publicity and kept reporters at a distance. He did not respond to requests by The Coastal Star to interview him about his years with the city and future plans.

But that reticence did not extend to his dealings with council members, who praised him over the years for making himself available to answer questions and responding quickly to their calls or emails.

During performance evaluations, council members consistently gave him high marks.

“I struggle to find an area of improvement to even suggest,” then-council member and now Mayor Scott Singer said in 2017. “Mr. Ahnell succeeds in areas that I can’t even fathom.”

“We’re on worldwide lists of best places to live, work, go to school, all those things,” said then-council member Jeremy Rodgers the same year. “It’s a testament to you and a testament to your hiring and our great staff that you’ve brought here.”

Ahnell’s most recent evaluations, on May 9, came as council members knew he would be stepping down because his retirement plan required him to leave by March 31.

He once again was lauded.

“Financially, you are a genius,” said Deputy Mayor Monica Mayotte. “You always make sure our city is in great financial shape.”

Yet they suggested ways he could improve his performance. Several focused on the need for more proactive communication with them, citing a few instances when they felt blindsided by learning about issues or problems from people outside City Hall.

But in offering their tributes on Dec. 12, council members were only positive.

Ahnell was not present in person to hear them because he was taking earned time off during the holidays. Since the council decided in May that Brown should take over because of his experience and historical knowledge of the city, Ahnell has taken a less visible role in city governance.

“So much of what he does is behind the scenes, never recognized, never rewarded and in many instances never appreciated,” said Fran Nachlas.

“He leaves a lasting legacy,” Singer said. “It goes beyond the incredible financial position we have been in over the last quarter century, reflected in budgets, long-range planning, capital planning, the way we have maintained excellence in all departments.”

And Brown, who joined the city’s building inspection division in 1977 and has served as deputy city manager since 2004, offered his own praise.

“I think few people understand the complexity of the position of city manager,” he said. “Leif did a wonderful job. … It has been my honor to work with him for the past 24 years.

“And I want to express my appreciation to him for his support of me during my position at the time and letting me work on … complex, interesting things that we have managed to accomplish for the city under his leadership.”

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