Delray Beach kills fire tax in response to outrage

Responding to a flood of public outrage, the Delray Beach City Commission snuffed out a proposed fee to help cover the cost of running the Fire Department. But the 3-1 vote to kill the fire levy leaves the community more than $3 million short in its 2011-12 budget.

Anger over the fee has been building for weeks and finally came to a head at the Jan. 17 commission meeting. Hundreds of people showed up, and about 100 spoke, nearly all of them saying the tiered fire fee would place an additional burden on already-strapped citizens.

Commissioners Adam Frankel, Tom Carney and Angeleta Gray gave the tax a thumbs-down. Commissioner Jay Alperin cast the sole vote to save the fee, and Mayor Nelson “Woodie” McDuffie was absent due to illness.

Gray provided the swing vote that led to the fee’s demise. Prior to the meeting, she said she was undecided. But when it came time to cast her ballot, she said: “I’ve been speaking to a lot of people who have talked about a whole bunch of financial burdens they face. A lot of people are without jobs.”

She added that many residents feared that if they were unable to pay the tax, a lien would be placed on their properties.

Originally, Frankel said, the city planned to institute a flat fee to help pay Fire Department costs. But based on a consultant’s report, the plan soon morphed into the tiered system that would have charged residents between $52 and $263 and business owners between $31 and $3,552, depending on their properties’ square footage.

Frankel said he favored the flat fee, but he and Carney were adamantly opposed to the tiered system.
Now, the commission, working with City Manager David Harden, the Finance Review Board and city staff, will have to find a way to plug the $3 million budget gap – a task city leaders say will be tough, particularly in the middle of the budget season. Both Frankel and Gray said “deep cuts” are in order.

Commissioners expect complaints as city services fall. But they said they hope residents remember Jan. 17 as the fiscal turning point.

Frankel called it a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” And Gray, who is also the city’s vice mayor, is calling on the public to offer input on “other ways to balance the budget.”

Whelchel inserting herself into city races

Boca Raton Mayor Susan Whelchel is not up for re-election this year, but she has inserted herself into the March 13 city balloting with her endorsements. Whelchel is supporting Councilwoman Constance Scott, who is seeking re-election. In another council race, the mayor is backing the challenger, Frank Chapman, who hopes to unseat Councilman Anthony Majhess, who is seeking his second term.

Whelchel said Chapman “is someone I have known for a while,” explaining that he was a student and student government member at Boca Raton High School around the time she was a teacher there. She said she feels he has “a very common-sense approach to solving problems.”

Majhess responded by saying he was “not surprised that [Whelchel] is looking to replace me with someone who has a more sympathetic vote to hers.” The incumbent also said the mayor is supporting several issues he opposes – in particular, off-campus Florida Atlantic University student housing. A parcel of land on N.W. 20th Street St. near Florida Atlantic UniversityFAU is being considered for student residences.

As to Scott, the mayor said, “She and I may not always agree on everything, but she has shown that she understands the issues. On the learning curve, she has come a long way and has also shown leadership skills.”

Newt Gingrich coming to town

Former U.S. House speaker and GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich will visit south Palm Beach County Jan. 27 — just four days shy of the Florida Republican presidential primary.

Gingrich is scheduled to appear at 3:30 p.m. Jan 27 at the South County Civic Center at 16700 Jog Road in Delray Beach. Registration begins at 2:30 p.m. The event is free, but an RSVP is required.

The appearance is sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, which does not endorse candidates but offers them a chance to address the membership.


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