By Mary Thurwachter

Topics ranging from water quality and code enforcement to staff salaries and how contracts are vetted came up at the mayoral debate at the Lantana Public Library on Feb. 20.

12390415100?profile=RESIZE_400xIncumbent Karen Lythgoe and challenger Jorge “George” Velazquez took just 35 minutes to answer questions submitted by residents and read by Teresa Wilhelm, president of the Friends of the Library, the forum’s sponsor.

Velazquez, 57, a former commercial real estate agent who worked in the federal prison system and is an alternate on the town’s Planning Commission, had a different view than his opponent on the salaries of town employees.

“In 2020 and 2021, we had 155 employees and we paid $6.8 million in salaries,” he said. “In 2022 and 2023, we had 135 employees and paid $8 million, and our budget back in 2020 was $20 million. Today it’s $30 million. I don’t think the town has grown so much for us to warrant that kind of expense.”

Lythgoe, 64, was elected to the council in 2020 and was acting mayor after Robert Hagerty resigned in 2021. During a special election, she ran successfully to complete the rest of Hagerty’s term, which ends after the election March 19. She said there is a reason that salaries went up.

“In 2021, we had a 30% turnover in employees,” she said. The same thing happened the following year. “We decided we would raise the taxes a quarter of a mill [an additional 25 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value] and one of the things we wanted to do was attract and retain talented employees, which means you don’t need as many employees and you keep the ones who are good.”

She said Velazquez had changed his mind on the issue.

“On July 11, 2022, George, you spoke up and you were the only person in the room that advocated for the small increase in taxes and to pay the employees more. It’s on the audio. So, I’m not sure what’s changed. We want to pay and keep good employees.”

When asked for their thoughts on code enforcement, Velazquez said some residents are complaining about it.

“I think they should have a little bit more time to come into compliance,” he said. “A lot of residents say they’re being unfairly treated.”

Lythgoe said she and the town manager had discussed the customer service aspect of code enforcement.

“Sometimes there’s a little bit of a less-than-friendly attitude,” Lythgoe said. “We want to have a customer service attitude with our enforcement and it’s improving. I’ve been getting reports back from some of the residents that things are getting better. I think there’s still some targeting going on and one of the things that supposedly will help fix that is that you can’t make anonymous complaints anymore.”

On the topic of how contracts are vetted and the cost of renovating the library, Velazquez said improvement is needed.

“The estimate for renovating this library was $750,000 but we wound up paying $1.5 million,” he said. “The Inspector General came and slapped Lantana on the wrist because they had hired an unlicensed contractor. Luckily, one of the councilmen found a discrepancy and brought it up to the town manager. They got rid of the contractor, who wound up getting some probation time for what he did.”

Lythgoe said the town now has a contract manager who makes sure contracts are “on the up and up.”

“We had somebody a while back that was kind of making a little money (from the contracts),” she said. “He was giving jobs to friends, shall we say. We found that out just by word of mouth and we caught that.”

Both candidates like the latest plans for redeveloping the Kmart site, but Velazquez wishes there would be condos rather than apartments.

And both agreed that halfway houses and drug rehab centers in town are not presenting problems.

“The ones that are run correctly and are properly licensed, I have no problem with,” Lythgoe said. “There’s no crime with them. If you know of any that are, you need to address it with the police.”

Velazquez said there is a sober home directly behind his home and he has never had a problem with it.

“All they do is sit and smoke, laugh, and listen to some music,” he said.

High on both candidates’ priority lists was improving drinking water quality.

Velazquez said he had heard a lot of complaints about dirty water. Lythgoe said the town is working on it.

“We started to do the work on the filter media this month and once that’s changed, hopefully, when they get in the tanks, they will look good, but if not, we’ll have to work on the tanks,” she said. “We have replaced all the pumps. We’ve replaced the roof on the pump house, since it was old.

“We’re trying to do things a smart way.”

Last year the town got millions of dollars in grants toward infrastructure, including the water plant, according to Lythgoe.

Voters will have another chance to hear the candidates discuss local issues during a forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce at 7 p.m. March 7 at the Palm Beach Maritime Academy Middle School, 600 S. East Coast Ave.

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