Boca Raton mayor Susan Whelchel and the city council asked Boca Raton magazine for an opportunity to respond to an article in the March/April issue that continues to spark great discussion around town: "Does Boca Make the Grade?" As part of the feature written by Tom Collins, the editorial team, based in part on expert sources interviewed for the story, handed the city grades in areas ranging from urban planning to tourism.
The mayor sent Boca Raton a four-page rebuttal. Here is that letter in its entirety:
The City Council and I take the operation, appearance, financial stability and reputation of the City very seriously, as have previous elected officials. Without trying to be boastful, the result is that Boca Raton continues to be a premier community by almost all measures. The City clearly has advantages and opportunities that other communities do not have.
While we are certainly open to receiving comments and suggestions from knowledgeable people regarding the City of Boca Raton, your article unfairly assigns grades regarding the City. The grades assigned by the editorial staff do not match the comments made by the representatives quoted and they provide an undeserved negative view of the City. The reputation of the City is important when attracting new businesses, new residents, and visitors, and unnecessary and undeserved negative comments can hurt this reputation.
Although I am not providing a long analysis of each of the categories and grades that were assigned in those categories, I do want to provide a short critique of each category, and provide a grade that I feel better matches the situation.
Urban Planning: The City has spent a considerable amount of time and funds increasing walkability, availability of mass transit, and development of mixed-use development, all components of urban planning quality. As examples, the City has improved the size and look of sidewalks in the Sanborn Square District, East Palmetto Park Road, and other areas of the City. The City initiated a free shuttle bus system that carries workers to and from the Boca Raton Tri-Rail Station to the Arvida Park of Commerce and Town Center Mall, and the City has created over 34 miles of bicycle trails and 44 miles of bicycle lanes. The City has a number of mixed use development areas including Mizner Park and has created planned mobility districts. These efforts, as Michael Busha notes, have put the City of Boca Raton in the top several communities in the County in urban planning.
Boca Raton Magazine’s Grade: C+
Mayor’s Grade: A-
Economic Development: The City has a thriving and diverse business community. Over half of all of the large office space in Palm Beach County is located in Boca Raton. The FAU Research and Development Park is about 85 percent leased. And although due for some updating, the 850-acre Arvida Park of Commerce remains one of the premier office parks in the State, and is home to dozens of corporate headquarters. Since the City Council approved an economic development incentive program in April 2010, the City has leveraged about $1.8 million with $8.2 million of State and County incentives to attract or retain about 5,200 high paying jobs in the community (and that is not including the recent announcement of Office Depot’s decision to stay in Boca Raton with its 2,200 jobs).
Boca Raton Magazine’s Grade: B
Mayor’s Grade: A
Political Environment: Part of the lack of large emotional debates at City Council meetings noted by Craig Agranoff is the continued high level of performance of City operations, and the continued financial performance of the City. Unlike other communities in which there is significant attendance at City Council meetings, Boca Raton does not have the issues that generate this participation such as crime, trash collection, water quality, flooding, fire protection, taxes, corruption, or other issues that can fuel such debate. The City Council meetings are professionally conducted, and without community-wrenching issues, the meetings are generally pretty mundane. Some might even call them boring. However, the City Council meetings are available online for those that want to view. The City also has 27 regulatory and advisory boards and commissions which opens aspects of the City government up to a number of community members.
Boca Raton Magazine’s Grade: F
Mayor’s Grade: B
Cultural Offerings: The City of Boca Raton and its residents and businesses support the arts better than most other cities. As a result, the City has a significant number of cultural organizations. Fourteen of these organizations have formed the Boca Raton Cultural Consortium, which actively provides coordination and collaboration of artists and performances. Within the City are a number of excellent cultural facilities and venues, including the Boca Raton Historical Society and Museum, the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the Mizner Park Amphitheater, the Boca Raton Children’s Museum, and the Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center, not to mention a number of wonderful facilities at Florida Atlantic University and Lynn University. The City took over operation of the Mizner Park Amphitheater several years ago, turning an empty venue into a active, thriving entertainment center with over 80 concerts, performance and events each year with over 100,000 visitors.
Boca Raton Magazine's Grade: B+
Mayor's Grade: A
Environmental Preservation: The City had one of the first landscaping ordinances in the nation. It has received Tree City USA certification for the last 32 years. There are almost 380 acres of environmentally sensitive land within the City. The City has the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center and a nationally acclaimed sea turtle program. It has developed the largest reclaimed water program in Southeast Florida, implemented a program to implement LED lighting, created the Green Living Advisory Board, maintained miles of landscaped medians, and constructed a Green Demonstration Park, highlighting sustainable environmental practices.
Boca Raton Magazine’s Grade: A-
Mayor’s Grade: A-
Tourism: In addition to the miles of beautiful public beaches, beachside parks, golf courses, tennis courts, and boating, the City of Boca Raton has everything that visitors and tourists are looking for, including a great supply of quality hotels, a large number and variety of restaurants and dining opportunities, and significant shopping venues, including Town Center at Boca Raton (one of south Florida’s top luxury shopping destinations), Mizner Park, Royal Palm Plaza, and the Shops at Boca Center. Medical tourism is also becoming significant in the City due to the quality healthcare facilities and the community attributes, and the Allianz Tournament brings in tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Boca Raton Magazine’s Grade: B
Mayor’s Grade: A-
Financial Health: First, neither of your “experts” are experts in governmental finance. [Editor's note: Boca Raton publisher John Shuff, who was part of the editorial team that assigned final grades, is a certified CPA and the former Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for Capital Cities Communications in New York.] The City’s financial position remains extremely strong. Arguably, the City of Boca Raton maintains the highest quality of services of all of the communities in Palm Beach and Broward Counties, yet it has the lowest tax rate, the lowest water and sewer rate, and the lowest fire services assessment of these same communities. The City has earned a AAA rating from all three financial rating agencies, something that few communities have been able to accomplish. The City has developed and maintained financial reserves for future projects and possible emergencies. The City has received the GFOA Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for the last 33 consecutive years and the GFOA Award for Distinguished Budget Presentation for the last 31 consecutive years, and is one of only 15 or so communities in the state to be recognized by the FAPPO Officials with an Award of Excellence in Public Procurement.
There is a section of your article in this Financial Health category that gauges the “most bang for our tax dollars” by comparing the number of employees that the City of Boca Raton has per 1,000 residents to the number of employees that Delray Beach has per 1,000 residents. Such a comparison is not apples to apples, and therefore very misleading. This ratio is based on full time residents, but during the day, the number of people in the Boca Raton swells to approximately 250,000 due to the commuter students at FAU and Palm Beach State College, the employees in business centers, and all the visitors shopping and dining in the City. City staff provide services for this increased population. The City also has a number of additional facilities that Delray Beach does not, including an airport, 3 colleges/universities, 13 million sq. ft. of office space, 3 million sq. ft. of retail space, 3,800 hotel rooms, wastewater and reclaimed water treatment facilities, and a significant number of parks. The City also provides water and sewer to about 35,000 people outside the City. These facilities also require additional staff and services. For all of these reasons therefore, your simple comparison of the number of employees per 1,000 residents is very misleading.
Boca Raton Magazine’s Grade: C-
Mayor’s Grade: A+
Finally, the article did not include some other criteria that also might help determine how the City “stacks up.” Crime rate, emergency response, water quality, infrastructure replacement programs, use of technology, recreational facilities, athletic and children’s programs, libraries, and community events are all examples of categories that could be used to determine how a community compares to others. Although none of these categories were included in the article, I think that in each of these, the City of Boca Raton would compare very favorably.
I feel strongly that your article was rather lean on important facts as discussed above. The assigned grades did not match the comments contained in the article or reflect the actual situation in each of the categories and other categories were completely missing. With this article, Boca Raton Magazine painted an undeservedly negative picture of the City of Boca Raton, its residents and its businesses. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the previous article, and I hope the information I provided enlightens you with additional information and provide your readers with the many ways we are one of the most sustainable and best run cities in the nation.
Susan Whelchel, Mayor