By Rich Pollack

It finally happened.

After 33 years and two unsuccessful attempts to rid the town of an outdated $350,000 spending limit, Highland Beach voters on Tuesday loosened the fiscal handcuffs on their elected leaders, approving a charter change that increases the cap to $900,000 per project before a referendum is required.

“The voters did the right thing,” said Highland Beach Vice Mayor David Stern, who championed the proposal to boost the cap to what the $350,000 limit passed in 1991 would be in today’s dollars and add an annual inflation adjustment. “It’s outstanding.”

In addition to approving the change to the spending limit, 60% in favor to 40% against, voters also approved spending up to $3.5 million to line sewer pipes. They also approved giving the town the option to allow the county’s supervisor of elections to oversee Highland Beach’s election canvassing board rather than requiring commissioners to serve on it.

The sewer pipe lining project received 77% approval while the canvassing board issue received 70% approval.

It is the change in the spending cap, however, that will probably have the most significant impact on the town’s ability to tackle small capital projects without having to get voter approval, which can be lengthy and costly.

“This makes the process a lot smoother,” Stern said. “We now have the ability to approve projects with a reasonable cost without having to go to referendum.”

With the town starting its own fire department in May, increasing the spending limit takes on more importance, according to Town Manager Marshall Labadie, because of the high cost of replacing equipment and apparatus.

Stern believes the success of the proposal to increase the cap was due in part to the simplicity of the ballot measure, as well as to support from the Committee to Save Highland Beach, a local political action committee that opposed raising the spending limit when it came before the voters two years ago.  

“This was presented to the voters in a clear and simple way,” he said.

Two years ago, Stern and others say, the attempt to increase the cap to about $1 million failed to get voter support in part because the proposed limit was based on a percentage of the overall town budget, which was seen as a complicated formula.

That was the second failed effort.

In 2012, it appeared that the spending limit would be increased when the Town Commission passed an ordinance raising the limit to $1 million only to discover — after a Palm Beach County Inspector General report two years later — that any change in the limit needed voter approval.

In the interim, the town had begun construction of a $850,000 town hall and police department renovation project that was permitted to proceed.

Since it was first introduced in 1991, the cap has had a significant impact on the town’s success — and failures — in moving forward on major expenditures.

In late 2021, voters overwhelming gave the town commission the green light to spend up to $10 million on a new fire department, with just shy of 90% of voters approving the proposal. That vote cleared the way for the town to build a new $8 million-plus fire station.

Nine years ago, voters also gave the commission permission to spend $2.8 million on a water main replacement project on six side streets.  

A firetruck was at the center of a 2010 referendum, when voters narrowly turned down a request from the commission for permission to go over the cap and spend $810,000 on a new firetruck. The measure failed with 1,016 residents saying no and 946 in favor of buying the new truck.

That vote left the town stuck with a truck that was 15 years old and had cost $135,433 for maintenance and repairs during the previous five years, leaving it out of service an average 11.8% of the time.

The truck continued to cost the town thousands of dollars in repairs for several years until a lease agreement with Delray Beach was signed.

In 2019, voters overwhelmingly turned down three ballot items that would have given the commission their approval to spend $45 million on three projects on improvements along State Road A1A, including drainage improvements, enhancements to the town’s Ocean Walk multi-use corridor and surrounding areas, and placing utility wires underground.

In that election, which saw one of the largest turnouts in town history, more than 90% of voters rejected the spending plan.

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