By Dan Moffett
Already lagging months behind schedule, Gulf Stream’s project to move its utilities underground faces a new obstacle in a lawsuit filed by the town’s litigious resident Chris O’Hare.
In a complaint to Palm Beach County Circuit Court, O’Hare argues the town should not use money from its general fund to pay for the project because that unfairly burdens residents in the Place au Soleil subdivision, which is west of the Intracoastal Waterway and already has its utilities underground.
O’Hare says the town was supposed to pay for the underground project through a special assessment on homeowners who would benefit from it. Place au Soleil residents were exempted from the assessment, O’Hare says, and their tax dollars in the general fund shouldn’t be used to pay for work in other neighborhoods.
“When the cost of the project exceeded the revenue raised by the special assessments on the specifically benefited property in the limited portion of the town,” O’Hare says in the suit, “… the town ignored its earlier legislative findings and chose to use general funds to make up the deficit. This imposes an ad valorem tax burden on properties in the un-benefitted area.”
In May, the Town Commission unanimously approved taking roughly $570,000 out of the general fund to cover the estimated cost overruns in the project’s second phase. Town Manager William Thrasher said the town had to use the general revenues because it stipulated six years ago when the project began that there would be no additional assessments.
Thrasher told commissioners that Place au Soleil accounts for about 8.5 percent of the town’s total taxable value, so the subdivision would account for about $45,500 of the project’s additional cost.
“We were moving ahead quite well on phase two,” said Mayor Scott Morgan. “I thought we had the wind behind the sails. However I was served with a lawsuit at my home by Mr. O’Hare seeking an injunction to stop the underground project with a declaration from the courts that it should be paid by the phase two residents, not out of the town’s general fund.
“And of course with Mr. O’Hare, always a claim for monetary damages. I don’t know what effect this will have on the undergrounding that we have struggled to put in place and advance.”
Morgan said the town intends to contest O’Hare’s suit and keep the project moving.
In recent weeks, attorneys for the town have won decisions in other suits filed by O’Hare and Martin O’Boyle, who have dozens of cases pending against Gulf Stream:
• A three-judge panel at the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld a 2-year-old lower court ruling that rejected O’Boyle’s claim that the town overcharged him for copying 4,573 pages of public records. “The Town was authorized to charge up to 15 cents for page,” the court said in ruling against O’Boyle. “It charged only 11 cents per page.”
• Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser dismissed with prejudice a 3-year-old suit O’Hare filed over the town’s rejection of permits for renovation of his home. Sasser said O’Hare had failed to “exhaust his administrative remedies” with the town before coming to court.
• U.S. Magistrate Judge William Matthewman issued a blistering rebuke of O’Boyle over a subpoena for a deposition in a federal case. In ruling against O’Boyle, Matthewman charged that he had “made false statements and wasted the time of this Court” and “blatantly failed to comply” with federal rules. The judge called O’Boyle’s claims “frivolous” and said his behavior constituted “misconduct.”
In other business: Commissioners have approved a tax rate for the 2016-17 budget of 4.59, or $4.59 per $1,000 of assessed taxable value — 4.1 percent below the rollback rate of 4.79. Included in the new budget is $650,000 to cover legal expenses, down from $1 million last year. Property values in Gulf Stream have risen 5.5 percent to $1.02 billion over the last year.
• On July 11, Vice Mayor Robert Ganger resigned the seat on the Town Commission he has held since 2012.
“My physicians have advised me that I need to concentrate on recovery of mental processes that were lost when I had a stroke in April 2016,” Ganger wrote in a letter to Morgan. “I began a long therapy program today and am optimistic of that outcome.
“Needless to say, my support of the town and its commission is enduring, and I hope to find ways to support your efforts as my recovery progresses.”
By Dan Moffett