Related story: Delray Beach: Balance of power on ballot in commission elections
By John Pacenti
If Delray Beach voters approve a $100 million public safety bond referendum March 14, $80 million of the proceeds will be used to pay for a new Police Department headquarters — or to cover the cost of a major renovation and expansion of the existing headquarters on West Atlantic Avenue.
The remaining $20 million is targeted for the renovation of aging fire stations, but there have been no specific details released as to how those dollars would be divided.
The police station priority was unveiled to voters at a Feb. 23 town hall meeting at the Old School Square gymnasium, just three weeks before Election Day.
The public safety bond is one of two referendums on the election ballot for voters to decide. The other is a $20 million parks bond, with most of its money going for improvements at Catherine Strong Park. Some money would be used at Miller Park and others in the city.
Residents at the town hall expressed dismay at the lack of information about the bonds since they were announced in September. Some thought the amounts sought were outrageous; others wondered if the money would be enough.
The fire department last year gave renovation estimates of $50 million for its headquarters at 501 W. Atlantic Ave., Station 115 on Old Germantown Road and Station 114 on Lake Ida Road. The city has said the proposed general obligation bond would also pay for renovations for Station 112 on Andrews Avenue and the Ocean Rescue headquarters on Ocean Boulevard.
But apparently Station 114, the youngest of the bunch, is off the table. Last year, the fire department said it needed $4.6 million to renovate it.
At the meeting, Fire Chief Keith Tomey also addressed concerns voiced repeatedly about a proposal that would move Station 112 to Anchor Park, combining it with Ocean Rescue. Residents said they were worried about the noise or the fate of the playground.
“We are so far away from anything actually breaking ground that there’ll probably be more thoughts and ideas and concepts before we actually decide,” Tomey said.
The city’s literature is clear: The plan is to renovate existing fire stations, not build new ones.
Information was added to the city’s bond referendum website at the end of February to tell voters that the money wouldn’t be used to build new fire stations at Anchor Park or Atlantic Dunes Park on the barrier island.
Friends of Delray, an outspoken nonprofit group that has been critical of city leaders, dedicated a podcast in mid-February to the two bonds, with guests addressing how voters have been kept in the dark.
Former Mayor Jay Alperin said on the group’s webcast that he couldn’t get answers from the city when he asked for specifics earlier this year.
He noted that in the 1980s he was involved in a bond issue where city officials canvassed neighborhoods for months to tell people what was proposed.
“This is a whole different way of handling a bond and it scares me that people won’t know in time to get really specific on what they are going to get for an increase in their taxes,” he said.
But City Manager Terrence Moore told residents at the town hall that the city’s quality of life would be greatly impacted if the bond initiatives don’t pass.
“Then we are back to the drawing board, so to speak. All the needs and all the projects will be delayed,” he said. The city has simply outgrown its current infrastructure with populations increasing from 47,748 to 66,911 since 1990, Moore said.
Some voters said that the electorate wasn’t ready to make such a big commitment.
“Most people haven’t heard about this yet and we are supposed to vote on it in a few weeks,” said Karen O’Neill. “And realistically, the concern is, are we ready to vote on this?”
Susan Hansford wanted more specifics on why voters needed to approve such a large amount. “They cannot ask us for this kind of money,” she told The Coastal Star. “It’s asking us to sign a blank check.”
A general obligation bond is paid by revenue from property taxes. The city is required to levy enough property tax to pay for the debt service on the bond.
The estimated cost over 30 years to a resident with a home having $1 million in taxable assessed value would be $428 for the first year of the public safety bond. That amount would decrease to $360 annually when the city retires two previous bonds next February.
The parks and recreation bond is a separate cost. The 30-year estimated cost will be an additional $88 annually for a home with a $1 million taxable assessed value.
The taxable assessed value on a home is almost always less than its market value.
The parks bond is specifically geared to Catherine Strong Park at 1500 SW Sixth St., to pay for covered basketball courts, a covered practice field, walking trails and improvements to restrooms and lighting.
A question was raised at the town hall about whether the money can be used to renovate the city’s golf course. Moore said it could not because the course is a “de facto enterprise.”
Police Chief Russ Mager painted a bleak picture of his current headquarters.
“Roof leaks, tons of leaks,” he said, adding that the department has started converting closets into office space.
The city is contemplating whether to raze the police headquarters and start with a new floor plan, or to add floors to the existing structures.
Tomey spelled out the needs of the fire department, saying many of the existing stations were built 30 years ago when the department had fewer firefighters, fewer vehicles and a nearly all-male staff. Women now make up 20% of the operational staff of the department, he said.
“We’re not quite as bad as the PD where we got people in closets but we’re getting pretty close,” Tomey said.