Invest in Fort Lauderdale, despite the cost and neglect
The city of Fort Lauderdale is asking voters to approve a $100 million bond for a new police headquarters on Broward Boulevard and a $200 million bond to add or improve parks. Both projects will improve the city. Both will also raise property taxes again. Behind them on the runway are more projects that will raise taxes and fees.
We reluctantly support both measures, which would increase taxes on a $300,000 home by $150 per year.
The city’s dumpy police headquarters on Broward County’s signature boulevard is an embarrassing eyesore. It also stands testament to the political calculation that boosting city payroll provides better Election Day results than maintaining buildings. We recognize that “yes” votes reward such bad behavior.
There’s cause for concern about these oversized proposals. In just two years, the projected cost of the police headquarters — which includes a 750-space parking garage and some heavy-duty vehicles — has jumped from $80 million to $100 million. That’s far more than similar proposals in similar-sized cities, such as St. Petersburg ($79 million) and Hollywood ($72.5 million.)
Plus, the size of the proposed building just jumped from 165,000 to 225,000 square feet, which is about two-and-a-half times bigger than today’s 85,000-square-foot building. We’re talking about the Fortress of Fort Lauderdale.
As for parks, what’s not to like about the promise to spruce up almost every city park, create a tunnel-top park over the downtown Kinney Tunnel on U.S. 1, and create a signature park in each of the city’s four commission districts, starting with added amenities in Holiday Park and Joseph Carter Park?
But $200 million? A few months back, the parks wish list totaled $150 million. But what’s another $50 million between friends.
Voters are right to be skeptical. In 2004, the city got them to approve a $40 million bond to build 10 fire stations in eight years. Fifteen years later, the city remains two stations short. Yet on their annual tax bills, property owners still face interest on the debt.
Growth not paying for itself
To understand our frustration with the city’s management, look around. Look at all the cranes dotting the skyline and all the growth. The city’s budget has been growing at more than 9 percent a year. So why aren’t commissioners spending more of this year’s $785 million budget on capital projects?
Mayor Dean Trantalis told us that besides higher utility bills and some neighborhood upgrades, the new money is largely funding promised pay raises for police, firefighters and general service employees. The commitments were made by the prior commission, where Trantalis was often in the minority.
So to make physical improvements, the city is asking longtime residents to open their wallets wider. Next up, citizens will also see plans for a new city hall. Then, most likely, a new water treatment plant, which would be financed via the city’s water-sewer “enterprise fund,” not property taxes.
(To fix water pipes, the city floated another $200 million bond late last year. The measure didn’t go before voters, though, because the debt will be paid by water fees, not property taxes. Water fees were already set to rise 5 percent every year. In April, after the election, commissioners will discuss the new rate of rise for water fees.)
And that’s not all. A city task force is examining a $3 billion list of needed infrastructure fixes. Guess where that money will come from.
Obviously, the city’s growth is not paying for itself. And despite robust revenues, the city is failing to appropriately maintain its physical assets.
The trend began during the recession, when the city stopped maintaining everything so as not to raise taxes. “But they did find a way to give the police union a 5 percent raise and dig into the reserves to pay for it,” notes Trantalis, who disagreed with his colleagues at the time.
Neither is there much to like about how the prior city commission, guided by former City Manager Lee Feldman, pushed these two referendums into an off-cycle March election, which lacks a high-profile race that might help generate turnout. The city is spending $325,000 to hold this special election.
Don’t overlook ballot’s backside
Yes, there are two other questions on the ballot — the first designed by Broward’s new supervisor of elections, Peter Antonacci. Unfortunately, we’re hearing from people who didn’t notice the two questions on the flip side of their mail-in ballots.
There, the question about cleaning up the city’s charter language is easy to support. But voters should reject the proposal to move the general election to November, eliminate the primary election and extend commissioner terms from three to four years.
We’ve long supported holding the city election in November, when more voters turn out. But eliminating the primary means that in a field of five candidates, for example, a new mayor could be chosen with just 21 percent of the vote. As for expanding their time in office, ask one of today’s commissioners if the city would have been better served if their predecessor had served four-year terms. Like us, you’ll likely hear a belly laugh. In their rush to the ballot, commissioners served themselves, not the public good.
But we understand the rush, given the trend in Broward elections. With the exception of Cooper City and Coral Springs, city voters in Plantation, Lauderhill, Pompano Beach, Lighthouse Point, Margate and Oakland Park have recently approved big bonds to finance the upgrade of public safety buildings, parks and infrastructure.
In August, county voters also agreed to raise property taxes to boost teacher pay, after having boosted property taxes in 2014 to fix school buildings. And in November, they agreed to raise the sales tax by a penny to address traffic congestion.
In fact, the only state constitutional amendment to fail in November was Amendment 1, which would have reduced property taxes by increasing the homestead exemption.
It’s likely the few voters who turn out on Tuesday, March 12, will continue this tax-andspend wave, no matter the gold-plated cost of the police headquarters and the rounded-up
$200 million parks plan, which is based on a
Police HQ in sorry state
That said, something must be done about that police headquarters. The unkempt building is 60 years old. It was built when the city had 100 police officers. Today, it has 530. The building also has had problems with leaks, flooding, mold and the elevators.
Chief Rick Maglione said the department needs more room to safely store evidence, to house body-camera docking stations and to build a real-time crime center that integrates with web-based camera systems he hopes to gain access to.
The building also would be built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. Today’s building had to be evacuated during Hurricane Irma, he said, because “it’s not rated to withstand hurricane winds.”
Like other officials making the pitch, Maglione fails to mention that the city has a 23,000-square-foot Emergency Operations Center at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, which is capable of withstanding a Cat 5 hurricane.
The police building, Maglione said, is “the marquee at the entrance to our city, and it should be reflective of the great city we have.”
We asked Trantalis and City Manager Chris Lagerbloom if, like other cities, Fort Lauderdale had explored moving its police headquarters off the city’s main drag. If a similar request passes in Hollywood, for example, the city plans to move its headquarters off Hollywood Boulevard to free up the property for something more appealing.
It wouldn’t work, they said, because the back of the property houses sanitation and fleet maintenance. Plus, it abuts Sailboat Bend, the city’s oldest neighborhood. “We have historically not had good success in building something of height or substance adjacent to a historic neighborhood,” Lagerbloom said. Trantalis questions whether developers would find the site attractive.
What we think
While we’ve got serious questions about these bond requests, we expect they will pass and the city will be better if they do.
But if they do, the city must provide better financial oversight and ensure such neglect never happens again.