Dan Moffett/The Coastal Star
By Dan Moffett
Hardly anyone expected budget problems to surface in Gulf Stream, one of South Florida’s most affluent enclaves — a place where government reserves and property values have always been high while tax rates stayed low.
But then, who expected the town’s soaring legal bills, run up in defense against two frequently litigious residents, Martin O’Boyle and Chris O’Hare?
On July 11, town commissioners voted unanimously to do what had seemed unthinkable years ago: raise the tax rate.
The proposed 11.5 percent increase over the rollback rate (to $3.90 per $1,000 of assessed value from $3.497) is projected to raise an additional $175,000 during the next fiscal year, money that will be set aside to cover the costs of the many court cases brought by O’Boyle and O’Hare.
“It’s an absolute shame,” said Mayor Scott Morgan, “the wastage of reserves from this town as a result of what has been a legal onslaught on the integrity of our neighborhood. We’ve had to take the necessary steps to oppose it and protect this town. That costs money, unfortunately.”
Gulf Stream has seen its reserves fund fall from about $1.6 million to less than $700,000 during the last several years of legal fighting with O’Boyle and O’Hare. Separately, the two have filed dozens of suits and complaints against the town and made numerous public records requests that officials say have been costly to handle and a strain on staff.
“We’re in a unique situation,” Morgan said. “You can’t budget for the onslaught of lawsuits from Mr. O’Hare and Mr. O’Boyle, but the expense seems only to go up … It’s the uncertainty of the litigation costs. It’s the uncertainty of the end game.”
He said O’Boyle and O’Hare had each brought up new legal issues in recent weeks, and called some of their actions “frivolous.”
“How can you make such a statement?” O’Boyle asked the mayor and insisted on an answer.
“If you want a response to your questions, you should look in the mirror when you ask them,” Morgan shot back at O’Boyle.
O’Boyle accused commissioners of being unwilling to negotiate: “They want to fight, and when they want to fight, that’s OK.” He said he was willing to participate in “a slugfest in which the town is hemorrhaging cash,” but he called the town’s approach “foolishness” and said the commission was acting out of “ego, hostility, but certainly not sense.”
O’Hare also criticized commissioners. He said they were ignoring his public records requests and creating their own legal problems.
“All this stuff would go away and go back to normal,” he said, “if you’d just tell staff to follow the law.”
The town has hired outside counsel and spent about $360,000 in legal costs during the last fiscal year and is setting aside another $400,000 in the proposed budget for next year.
Vice Mayor Robert Ganger said the depleted reserves could hinder the town’s ability to recover quickly from hurricane or storm damage. He said the commission has to do what it takes to protect residents — even if that means raising taxes.
“The fact of the matter, and everyone knows it, is the money is going for a purpose that does not serve the community or do much good,” Ganger said. “Gosh, to say that we’re willing to put at risk our citizens’ ability to recover in a natural disaster… just seems a shame to me.”
Ganger suggested that the commission might consider cutting a street lighting project from the budget, but Commissioner Joan Orthwein objected, pointing to the town’s rising property values (up 14 percent this year, the highest increase in Palm Beach County, in part through annexation) and the town’s tax rate, which has been the county’s lowest.
“I think we should go forward and be positive,” Orthwein said. “We can’t stop everything because of the legal expenses.”
How nasty have things gotten in Gulf Stream?
O’Boyle has posted a sign on a truck that reads: “Mayor Scott Morgan is Destroying Gulf Stream. BANKRUPTCY IS COMING!” and hired a plane to fly a banner over the town with a similar message.
And his public records requests may have hit pay dirt, uncovering a scandal involving lots of dough in the affluent enclave. It seems Town Manager William Thrasher turned in for reimbursement several receipts from Dunkin’ Donuts — $7.99 each for boxes of a dozen doughnuts, fuel for the town’s overworked staff and unpaid volunteers, according to Thrasher.
“I got a hot one,” O’Boyle said of the doughnut disclosure. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”