The Coastal Star

Highland Beach: Inspector General questions spending cap procedure

By Mary Thurwachter

A report from the Palm Beach County Inspector General’s office calls into question the procedure Highland Beach used to raise its spending cap in 2012.
The cap had been $350,000, but commissioners raised it to $1 million through an ordinance rather than a referendum. Then, the town approved an $850,000 project to renovate town hall and the police department.
Raising the spending cap was proposed by the town’s Charter Review Committee in 2012. And according to a legal opinion at the time from Town Attorney Glen Torcivia, the “funding limitation” could be amended by ordinance.
But Torcivia didn’t have all the facts, he said. He was not aware of a 1991 referendum that would have resulted in a different opinion.
As part of his firm’s analysis of whether the amendment required a referendum, he requested copies of all referendums that amended or readopted the town’s charter since the adoption of the Home Rule Powers Act (1973). “If the funding limitation was adopted by referendum, then a referendum is required to amend it,” he said. “None of the referendums provided to us by the clerk adopted the funding limitation.”
Torcivia wrote in a July 29 letter to the commission that he and Town Manager Kathleen Weiser and Finance Director Cale Curtis had been informed that a complaint had been filed with the Inspector General’s office in three matters.
For the first two — the purchasing policies for the renovations of the police department and town hall, and the town’s sale of property it owns in Boca Raton — the IG found the town had acted appropriately.
For the third matter, concerning the adoption of the charter amendment for a  spending cap, the IG concluded “that the failure to provide his (Torcivia’s) office with accurate information (i.e. a copy of a 1991 referendum) was attributed to human error.”  
The IG said, according to Torcivia, that the legal analysis his office provided to the town when considering the 2012 amendment was correct, but the facts were not.
Based on the information, Torcivia recommended the Town Commission “not enter into any other contracts for projects that exceed the $350,000 threshold unless a referendum is held to approve such a contract.”
He also recommended that the commission consider an ordinance that repeals the ordinance that improperly amended the funding limitation.
Vice Mayor Ron Brown said he’d like to see the spending limit referendum issue on the November ballot. Others said the matter should hold until March when more residents are in town to vote.
The IG report will be released in a few weeks, Weiser said. The commission will discuss the report at its Aug. 5 meeting.
Regarding the renovations of the Town Hall and police department, Torcivia said he agreed with the IG report that “the best course of action is to continue the renovations to completion.”
In other business, the commission agreed to seek bids for solid waste and recycling collection, based on the recommendation of the town attorney and town manager. The current contract, with Waste Management Inc., will expire at the end of the year.
“It’s a 15-year-old contract,” Torcivia said. While the town could extend the contract, he said, “the better course is to go out for bids.”
The town spends about $480,000 on solid waste and recycling collection each year.
Several commissioners said they wished they could extend the contract, since none of them has heard a single complaint about Waste Management Inc.
“I know of no one who is unhappy with Waste Management,” Commissioner Louis Stern said.  “However, I have to take the recommendation of our manager and attorney.”
“I think we have to go out on RFPs (requests for proposals),” Commissioner Dennis Sheridan said. “Let the chips fall where they may. I’m pretty sure they will fall where they should.” ;

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