CITY WATCH

Is pension relief in sight? For 15 years, Florida cities have begged the Legislature for help on fire and police pensions. Specifically, the cities want relief from what the Legislature did in 1999 as a favor to the fire and police unions.

That relief will come this year—unless it dies during this last week of the legislative session because of what Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, wants.

Majorities in the House and Senate want to take back some of that 1999 favor. Cities get money from a surcharge on insurance policies to spend on police and fire pensions. The 1999 favor forced cities to spend all the money on added benefits. The favor is a big reason why public safety pensions threaten cities’ financial future. Adding benefits without bolstering the pension funds means that pensions will take a larger and larger share of a city’s budget.

Senate Bill 246 would remove the “extra benefit” requirement from that 1999 law. Cities and unions could “mutually consent” to how cities use the insurance money. If a city and the union can’t agree, the legislation would specify how the money could be used. The change would take effect for any police or fire contracts that come up this year. Both are up in Delray Beach this year. Pension reform in Boca Raton would focus on both.

House Bill 7181 also would provide that relief. Kraig Conn, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, says the bills would “give cities the tools they need to make substantial pension reform at the local level.” The bills are not controversial.

Unfortunately, House Bill 7181—unlike the Senate bill—doesn’t stop at helping the cities. It includes major changes to the state retirement system. Those changes are controversial, and there is significant opposition in the Senate. If the House forces the Senate to vote on a combined bill, opposition to the state pension changes could kill the local pension changes, forcing the cities to wait another year for help.

The state retirement changes are one of Weatherford’s priorities. There are two days left in the session. The Florida League of Cities would like to separate votes on both pension proposals. Maneuvering continued Wednesday in the Senate. Too few good ideas come out of Tallahassee. It would be terrible to see local pension reform become collateral damage.

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State budget/local impact: Because three days must pass between final negotiations on the state budget and the Legislature’s vote on the budget, what emerged Tuesday morning should be what gets a vote Friday.

That budget includes money for two beach projects in Boca Raton: $351,500 for restoration of a stretch north of Spanish River Boulevard and $395,700 for dredging of Boca Raton Inlet. There’s also roughly $1 million for restoration work in Delray Beach and about $750,000 for shoring up the beach in Ocean Ridge.

In addition, cultural groups would benefit. The Boca Museum of Art would collect nearly $400,000 in two grants. Old School Square in Delray Beach and the Boca Raton Historical Society each would get $240,000. The Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens and the Delray Beach Center for the Arts each would receive $150,000. Another $88,000 would go to Boca Ballet Theatre.

Two thoughts:

First, for fans of these projects and organizations, the money may not be much when compared to the overall $77.1 billion budget, but these items still must get past Gov. Rick Scott’s line-item veto. Last year, the governor vetoed $368 million, including money for a new Palm Beach State College campus in Loxahatchee that supporters correctly touted as an investment in the area economy.

Second, especially with forecasts of rising sea levels, South Florida soon must seek a better, longer-term approach to eroded beaches than regularly pumping onto those beaches sand that regularly washes away.

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Let the negativity begin: Two weeks ago came the news that Florida added more jobs in March than any other state: nearly 23,000. This week, the latest Quinnipiac University poll showed that Charlie Crist still leads Gov. Scott by 10 percentage points.

For more than a year, Scott has touted Florida’s recovery and taken credit for it. He’s flown for photo ops to announce projects with as few as a dozen jobs. To counter the image of him as rich and uncaring, he has run ads emphasizing his tough childhood and his determination to help out-of-work Floridians get jobs. But even if each poll has its own weaknesses, Scott hasn’t led in any poll, and Quinnipiac is one of the more credible polls.

So expect the negative ads, which Scott also has been using, soon to dominate. They won’t be as heavy in South Florida, where Crist figures to do better, even as a former Republican. But the ads will bombard the Interstate 4 corridor—from the Tampa Bay area to Daytona Beach—that usually determines statewide elections. At this point, Rick Scott can’t run on being Rick Scott. He has to run on not being Charlie Crist, who will run on not being Rick Scott. So much at stake, so little public enthusiasm.

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Chapman saga continues: The job security of Delray Beach City Manager Louie Chapman just gets less and less secure.

A majority of the city commission—Cary Glickstein, Jordana Jarjura and Shelly Petrolia—chastised Chapman at the April 1 meeting regarding the loan modification for the Auburn Trace housing project. Chapman scheduled a March 18 vote on the issue against the wishes of Glickstein and Petrolia, and Jarjurra made a persuasive case that the manager had violated city rules in doing so. On a second vote, the modification was defeated.

By their comments, Glickstein, Jarjurra and Petrolia seem ready to give Chapman lousy evaluations this month. Would they fire him? Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t—at least not by themselves. Delray Beach’s charter requires a 4-1 commission vote to fire the manager.

Yet at the request of former mayor Tom Lynch, current mayor Glickstein read into the record at the April 16 meeting a letter from Lynch.

In that letter, Lynch explained that Delray instituted the supermajority rule in 1990, after the city’s political turbulence of the 1980s. Mr. Lynch said, correctly, that the city went through 10 managers or interim managers during that decade as factions on the commission battled between themselves with little regard for the city. In 1990, that turbulence ended, beginning the period that led to Delray’s revival. The commission hired David Harden as manager, and he served for 22 years.

“While fixing a short-term stability problem,” Lynch said, “the four-vote supermajority also allowed for a more isolated office of the city manager. Accountability is now less than it would be under a more traditional three-vote scenario …” Lynch asked the commission to “strongly consider” placing on the August primary ballot a change back to the three-vote majority. It would take just three votes to put that item on the ballot.

Anyone can see where this is going. The commission that took what amounted to a no-confidence vote in Chapman a month ago has support from a former leader who did much to spur creation of the new Delray Beach. Momentum is growing for a new city manager.

You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com.

About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.