In­vest in Fort Laud­erdale, de­spite the cost and ne­glect

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion - Ed­i­to­ri­als are the opin­ion of the Sun Sen­tinel Ed­i­to­rial Board and writ­ten by one of its mem­bers or a de­signee. The Ed­i­to­rial Board con­sists of Ed­i­to­rial Page Ed­i­tor Rose­mary O’Hara, Ser­gio Bus­tos and Ed­i­tor-in-Chief Julie An­der­son.

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

2016 sur­vey.

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.

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