By Jane Smith
With a 15-minute soliloquy, Delray Beach’s mayor cast the deciding vote to keep the Community Redevelopment Agency board independent from the City Commission.
“The hasty manner in which we got here does not produce an environment in which cooler heads prevail,” Mayor Cary Glickstein said.
Glickstein said he regretted not hitting the pause button two weeks ago, and that he and his commission colleagues had spent the intervening 14 days talking to residents on both sides of the issue and many in the middle.
But his support was conditional.
“Things must change,” he said, starting with the City Commission’s appointment of four members this month to the seven-member CRA board.
His other conditions include: The CRA will pay for all city-identified projects in its district; the CRA will circulate documents for public land sales over 1 acre to the City Commission and city attorney before developers can submit bids; and the CRA staff will communicate better with city staff and commissioners.
Glickstein also wants to see the CRA end “the backdoor funding game.” At times, he said, when a project was denied money by the city, the developer went to the CRA. The agency was seen “as an off-the-balance sheet, out-of-public-scrutiny source with a seemingly magical money pot that has been for far too long viewed as something other than what it is: taxpayer dollars.”
The mayor followed up a week later with a memo to the CRA leadership detailing the conditions for his support of an independent CRA board.
At the May 16 commission meeting, nearly 40 people spoke on the CRA. The speakers included downtown business owners, former city staffers, a former mayor, current and former CRA board members and longtime residents. Four current CRA board members, including Chairman Reggie Cox, sat in the front row of the packed commission chambers.
Vice Mayor Jim Chard, who agreed May 2 to discuss the CRA takeover, supported keeping the independent board two weeks later. Chard pointed out the agency’s many accomplishments, including trees along 12th Street and the Atlantic Grove development on West Atlantic.
“The issue is communications,” he said. “Better communications will be easier to do than the nuclear option.”
Deputy Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson also voted to keep the board independent.
The tumultuous debate over the CRA in the past two weeks brought the city together, Johnson said. “Thirty-two years is not long in the redevelopment world,” she said. “Blight and slum conditions still exist in the Northwest and Southwest neighborhoods.”
“It’s foolish to think this conversation started two weeks ago,” Commissioner Mitch Katz said. “It started two years ago when then-Commissioner Al Jacquet was outraged that Old School Square expenses were fast-tracked in front of work that was needed in the Northwest/Southwest neighborhoods.”
Katz supported disbanding the CRA board because he thinks elected officials should be in charge of deciding how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Commissioner Shelly Petrolia supported the disbanding even though it would be more work for the commission to take over the CRA. “I will bite the bullet,” she said. “I can do it.”
In her four years as a commissioner, Petrolia said, “Many CRA decisions did not have the support of the taxpayers.”
She also said that at a City Commission goal-setting session the previous week, all five commissioners agreed their focus should be on West Atlantic Avenue, not Congress Avenue.
Nearly one-third of the speakers agreed.
“I’m mad as hell, the CRA is giving you lip service,” said barrier-island resident Steve Blum. “It has nothing to do with race or historic events. It’s about who do I want to handle my $30 million.”
Frances Bourque, the principal money-raiser for the Old School Square complex, said, “For the last 30 years I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with the CRA.”
Bourque, who lives in the Delray Dunes Golf and Country Club, spoke about giving the CRA board members another chance. “There’s humanity in every decision,” she said. “It’s not just about the dollars.”
Residents of The Set have been waiting, said Cox, who lives in the area. (The Set is the new name for the Northwest and Southwest neighborhoods.) “It’s time to move forward.”
Dispute over naming policy
The uproar started at the May 2 commission meeting. Commissioners were upset that the CRA board passed a building naming policy while the city is trying to craft one. The naming policy became the tipping point after drawn-out negotiations with the iPic theater owner and the loss of a West Atlantic developer.
When the mayor asked the city attorney what could be done, Max Lohman replied “little” because the CRA is an independent board. He proposed a “nuclear option” with a resolution dissolving the CRA board and having the city commissioners sit as the CRA members. That’s how a majority of the CRAs in Florida are run, including in Boynton Beach and Boca Raton.
The CRA covers 20 percent of Delray Beach, from Interstate 95 to the ocean, where property values are the highest. Its current budget is $17 million from city and county tax dollars. With other sources, the agency will have $31.5 million to spend this budget year. The amount includes a $3.1 million line of credit and the $3.6 million land sale to iPic.
Delray Beach’s redevelopment agency is considered successful. Since its 1985 start, the CRA has created a vibrant downtown and the Pineapple Grove arts district. The agency also won recent awards from the Florida Redevelopment Association for beautifying Federal Highway and offering incentives to Fairfield Inn & Suites Hotel to open on West Atlantic Avenue.
At the agency’s May 11 meeting, the building naming policy was rescinded without discussion. The board members also evaluated their executive director and gave Jeff Costello a 5 percent raise, with Cox voting no.
Cox said he talked privately with Costello about his low rating. The evaluation forms show that Cox rated Costello 77 on a 155-point scale over budget, personnel and communication problems. The evaluations were done prior to the latest kerfuffle with the city.
By Jane Smith