Utilities project nice but not necessary
This is in reference to the great letter, “How did Palm Beach let pension shortfall happen?” by C. Edward Carter (Oct. 22, 2017 Palm Beach Daily News).
I very much appreciated your piece, but noticed a glaring omission: The massive, “quality of life,” nonessential, townwide utilities undergrounding project — costing well in excess of $90 million — is missing from your list of the Town Council’s “lifestyle” projects.
In the February 2016 Citizens’ Association newsletter, the thenTown Council President Michael Pucillo stated just how unnecessary this project is: “Perhaps the most significant issue is the funding of this project. Specifically, why are we not using the ad valorem method to pay for it, and how does the assessment method work? We use ad valorem taxation to fund the things that the local government must do to protect the safety and public health of our residents. These are things my colleague Bob Wildrick refers to as the ‘necessary’ things, as opposed to things that are simply ‘nice’ if we could do them. We all know the necessary functions of government: providing safe drinking water, picking up garbage, disposing of sewage, and providing police and fire protection.
“These essential services are properly paid for based on the value of one’s property. While the undergrounding of all our utilities will improve our quality of life, it does not fall into the ‘necessary’ column.” Clearly it is a ‘nice’ thing to do if we can. The Undergrounding Task Force and the Town Council determined that payment for this ‘nice’ improvement to our town should be paid for in a manner that reflects the costs of the undergrounding and the benefit derived from it, rather than the value of one’s property.”
On Oct. 14, 2014, this project was approved unanimously (5-0) by the then-Town Council without any input by Palm Beach residents.
The project costs (not including any financing costs) came in well in excess of the $90 million financing amount narrowly approved (by 62 votes out of a total of 4,286 votes) in the March 15, 2016 referendum. This was not a referendum to approve the project; only to approve the $90 million financing. It was limited to registered voters only. All residents were not able to vote.
In order to keep the project costs at $90 million (again not including any financing costs), the town transferred millions of dollars of project costs back to the town.
Furthermore, due to the outstanding class-action lawsuit and other lawsuits filed against this project, the town has not been able to spend any of the special assessment revenues collected thus far for the project, which are being held in an escrow account.
Instead, the town is spending its emergency reserve fund monies to pay for project costs.
Also, the town is spending other (budget) monies to pay for salaries, pensions and benefits for town staff and new hires, legal fees, etc. for this “lifestyle,” “quality of life,” “nice but not necessary” project.
From left, Town Council Member Bobbie Lindsay, Underground Utilities Task Force member
Tony Dowell, council members Richard Kleid and Julie Araskog and Town Manager Tom Bradford participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the utilities undergrounding project at Phipps Ocean Park on Aug. 4.