Saturday, May 30, 2009

Water Rate and Usage History - Interesting

A little publicized ability we have available through the city's website is access to our utility account history. This is part of the "Click2Gov" function where you can pay your utility bill on line. It's been available for about a year now. I've used it quite a few times to pay my bill with a debit card and, today, I checked out my historical water usage for the past 36 months. You can do the same for your electric use and any other item that is billed to you through your utility account with the city. In order to register and obtain access to this service, you will need your account number (which is in the upper right hand corner of your bill) and other basic personal information.

If we are all about water and energy conservation, this is a good way to track your progress towards a goal - and it can also give you an idea if there is a mistake in calculating your bill - or the impact that out-of-town guests may have on your utility usage.

I took a look at my water usage and a record of the amount billed (that information is only available for the past year.) My results appear below:

The bar graph above is the amount of water I use a month in thousands of gallons. You can see it's pretty consistent, but there are some anomalies that aren't easily explainable. Generally, I use about 3,000 gallons a month. I live alone and do not water my lawn.

The above is a bar graph showing the amount billed over the past year. You can see it's relatively consistent during 2008 - there was a spike in usage for some reason on the January '09 bill. The key thing to look at is that the "increased" rates went into effect effective with the April bill. If everything is correct, that means that I will be paying about $50 less per month for water over the average bill last year. I'll take a look at the ordinance that put the rate adjustment into effect, but low volume users may significantly benefit from the new rate structure. The more you use, the more you pay per 1000 of gallons.

By the way, an item regarding purchase of water from West Palm Beach is on Tuesday night's agenda - to the tune of about half a million dollars ($0.5 million.) The city will be getting the West Palm Beach water for about $2.50/1,000 and, according to my rate on this last bill for May, retails it to customers at $5 and change per 1000 gallons. This is making up for the shortage caused by the South Florida Water Management District restricting our draw from the aquifer (to prevent further salinization) and will supposedly carry us through to a time when we are getting water from our own reverse osmosis plant.

Let me know if you encounter any surprises if you end up checking this out yourself.

The science of decision-making

Interesting discussion on Public Radio International's "The World" program. Click title for link. It's about how humans tend to discount reality if it conflicts with our already accepted world-view. Many times we are reluctant to acknowledge what is another reality from the one that we have crafted. They talk about "false consensus" and how Obama uses a "team of rivals" approach to maximize dissonance. This has implications locally, for sure.

There is a more detailed discussion on a related podcast.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Palm Beach County's 13.5-percent tax roll plunge even worse than feared

Click title for link to PB Post article.

We had a presentation from Finance Director Bates at this week's CRA meeting about what was thought to be the 14% drop in property values in Lake Worth last year. Now we're at a 24.3% decrease in values and Lake Worth is the second highest drop of the 38 Palm Beach County municipalities.

Is this enough to wake people up around here?

Judy sings about the benefits of mass transit...

Time to remember....

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ever wonder why the commercial establishments look the way they do along our major corridors?

It turns out that the City of Lake Worth has no regulations concerning the maintenance of commercial properties. That's right - nothing it can point to that allows it to enforce standards related to the appearance of business and the buildings they're in. This was brought to light by the CRA's code enforcement person at the last CRA meeting. The City has the zoning code, which does not address maintenance issues and it has a housing code - that addresses only residential properties and structures. There is the ICC series of codes that do address these issues and it's in the works that this will be adopted - when is unknown.

Just a FYI.

Commissioner Jennings' twisted take on the role of the Planning and Zoning Board

This is part of an e-mail that was sent out by Commissioner Cara Jennings' encouraging "her people" to apply for Planning and Zoning Board positions. By the way, the deadline is 5 p.m. tomorrow. Go to the City's website for an application - see link at right. Below is the message as it appeared in the e-mail. Below is my reaction to its slanted content:

Planning and Zoning
: Interviewing for Five of the Nine seats. The Planning Board’s job is to review and approve development plans. They have the power to approve buildings such as the Lucerne in downtown and the Greater Bay beach plan. Although planning requires consideration of natural resources and population density, most of the recent members are from the development/ builder, legal or real estate profession. Help us create a board that reflects all the elements we need to consider when approving development in our city! If you want a say in how high, big, or green we grow, then step right up!

Planning and Zoning (ignores the fact that the board also has Historic Preservation, Nuisance Abatement functions):

Interviewing for Five of the Nine seats. (seven seats are full voting members of the Planning and Zoning Board, the other two are alternate positions that are up for re-appointment every year. She makes it seem like there is an opportunity to swing the majority of the Planning and Zoning Board with this round of appointments. In actuality, only three of the seven regular voting member seats are up. The two alternate members are full voting members on Historic Preservation Board matters.)

The Planning Board’s job is to review and approve development plans. (The Planning Board's job is to review plans and balance private property rights with public needs within legal constraints - it is not there to "approve" plans only. It also makes recommendations to the City Commission on zoning changes and Comprehensive Plan amendments, but it's understandable that the Commissioner wouldn't realize that since she does her own thing once it gets to the Commission anyway.)

They have the power to approve buildings such as the Lucerne in downtown and the Greater Bay beach plan. (The Planning Board has authority to review applications from all over the city - not just the most controversial projects in the history of Lake Worth. By the way, the Planning Board never approved the version of the Lucerne building as it was built. The version that it approved had a public parking garage and it had much more architectural interest than the one built. If you want to know, refer to many posts about the need to adhere to establishrd process. And, by the way, the Planning and Zoning board never approved the Greater Bay plan - period. Bringing these projects up is nothing but waving a red flag to "her base.")

Although planning requires consideration of natural resources and population density, most of the recent members are from the development/builder, legal or real estate profession. (Whoa Nelly! - this assumes that members of those professions are incapable of "considering natural resources and population density" - which is an insult to those that have served and are currently serving on the Planning and Zoning board and again, a gross over-simplification of the board's role. Perhaps the greatest potential legal liability a city has is in its decisions on land use and zoning. I have always stressed the need for a more balanced representation on the Planning Board, as well as all advisory boards - especially from a geographic perspective. It will be interesting to see how many applicants are appointed that are from west of Dixie. In my eight years of being on the board myself - and in the years since - I know of only one person west of Dixie Hwy. that has been appointed to the board. And Commissioner Jennings, if you want to talk about "population density" - let's talk about over-crowding in our city. Let's also talk about the need to direct redevelopment east - away from the state's critical natural resources and finding a way to better serve our citizen's by having daily goods and services within walking or biking distance.)

Help us create a board that reflects all the elements we need to consider when approving development in our city! (Again, as a Commissioner, it is appalling to chastise members of the current Planning and Zoning board for apparently not doing their job, according to Commissioner Jennings. Reading between the lines here, it's another way of extending and expanding the policy of "NO" through the Planning and Zoning board.)

If you want a say in how high, big, or green we grow, then step right up! (You can look at the Commission for this responsibility and their lack of getting out an approved Comprehensive Plan in over 5 years and $1 million dollars spent. And, when you get right down to it, we all need to be involved in these decisions by encouraging broad geographical representation on this board, keeping neighborhood associations in the loop on the decision-making process, have meaningful discussions of decisions at all points along the process and not go in with a "NO" first mentality.)

Bike Rodeo - This Saturday...

Palm Beach County grand jury recommends sweeping changes to handle political corruption

Click title for link to PB Post article. Click here for link to Grand Jury report.

I briefly read through the report (57 pages.) No names are named, really - but it's all about process. If you have a process that is not transparent and open, it breeds an environment where corruption can flourish. Can we now see why it is so important to go over and beyond in following process here in Lake Worth? And it can't be, like some current members of the dais do, follow procedure when it fits your needs and not follow it when it doesn't. Sound familiar?

Response from Mayor re Building Department

See top of above. What I have since heard is that Boynton Beach is providing the services of their Building Official on an interim basis - but the article makes it seem like much, much more.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Palm Beach County median price rises again in April to $234,400; sales also up modestly

Click title for link to PB Post article.

Another news bit from last night...

Before the CRA meeting began, I learned that our new Chief Building Official Bob Phoenix is no longer with the City. He might have been here all of a month? He's pictured above during his presentation at the Business Workshop put on by the CRA just about two weeks ago. I was impressed that he could actually get a handle on improving the department. Then, last weekend we find out that the city contracted with Boynton Beach for building department services (click title for link to article.)

When did this come before the city commission? See quote from article by Laura Hannah:
And Lake Worth has reached an agreement for Boynton Beach to provide building services, said Boynton Beach City Manager Kurt Bressner. All cities must abide by a uniform state building code, which makes the task manageable for Boynton Beach.

"It was, bottom line, what's the best way, the easiest way and most feasible way to do this?" Laura Hannah, Lake Worth's assistant city manager, said. "Boynton's offer certainly helps us out. It helps them out... both of us, in our respective operations."
So what's the story and why doesn't anyone know about it? How's it going to work and when does it go into effect?

Two Quick Up-dates...

According to my tracking software, time spent on this blog is up 45% over the previous month. I am glad that you're finding things of interest. Don't forget to use the search function in the upper left hand corner of the blog. It's a good way to hunt for keywords in topics you may be interested in.

And, I just got back from paying my utility bill and the City Hall Annex had its irrigation running at 9:45 a.m. How can the city police everyone else's water use when it can't police its own?

Let's Pause to Honor One of Lake Worth's Greatest Storytellers...

...if not the #1 holder of the title. Last night at the CRA meeting, she pointed out that the Historic Resource Preservation Board would soon be separated from Planning and Zoning and that somehow this will open up the opportunity to have additional historic districts in the area west of Dixie. She then said that there is a Federal program that gives a 20 percent tax credit for rehab of historic commercial structures - like multi-family rental properties. She said there is an application for this sort of thing and there are professionals that can help with the forms. She suggested that the CRA pay for the survey of these areas so that districts can be established and the program can be used to encourage rehab.

Now, for the rest of the story...the city has already surveyed the area west of Dixie for historic districts. They are sitting on the shelf and have been since the time there were done (about 10 years ago.) They would need to be updated, but the basics are done. As far as the Federal program this "expert" cites: It only applies to districts on the National Register. Lake Worth has only two (out of its six existing historic districts) that have such a designation - the downtown area and College Park. In order to qualify for National Register status, you need at least 60 percent of the structures in the district to be considered "contributing." If memory serves, the districts west of Dixie had a maximum of about 40 percent "contributing" structures which is barely enough to establish a local district. One of the reasons these two very large districts were never established was that they would double the amount of structures covered by historic regulations. Newsflash: Our staff has a difficult time handling the current load. If these are ever established, we would need additional staff. If not, it would end up being just another way to beat people over the head with another hurdle to jump to do anything with their property. And this "savior" Federal program wouldn't even apply.

And so it goes, the lady with the golden tongue continues to tell people things that aren't that way just to get her way. Think about that the next time you hear her spin her lovely yarns at the podium or when this traveling storyteller arrives at your door around election time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Strategies to Reduce Green House Gases in Florida that Support Healthy Communities

Charles Gauthier, Director of DCA's Division of Community Planning, will be speaking at three workshops around the state on “Strategies to Reduce Green House Gases in Florida that Support Healthy Communities." These workshops are sponsored by the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Department of Health. An agenda for each the Ft. Lauderdale workshop appears below. Let me know if you'd like to see the others.
The first workshop will be held in Tallahassee on May 28th at the FDOT Auditorium from 10:00 a.m. until 3:15 p.m.

The second is planned for June 16th in Orlando at the FDOT Orlando Urban Office Meeting Facility at 133 South Semoran Boulevard, from 10:00 a.m. until 3:15 p.m.

The third is planned for June 17th in Fort Lauderdale at the FDOT office Meeting Facility at 3400 West Commercial Boulevard from 10:00 a.m. until 3:15 p.m.

The workshops are free although there is a $10.00 fee for an optional box lunch (to be paid at the door upon arrival and sign-in). A luncheon speaker will be presenting so a box lunch is recommended unless you choose to bring your own lunch.

Each agenda is essentially the same, but each workshop is tailored to the region in which it is being held. As noted in the flyers, if you plan to attend, please call or email Kathleen Morris. Kathleen's phone number is (850) 222-6277 (extension 101) and her email is This will help workshop organizers keep track of expected attendance and lunch orders.

Let me know if you are interested and we maybe we can get a car pool going.

Reminder: Deadline for City Board Applications is May 29th

Click title for link to application.

The California Supreme Court ruling brings bitter news: Proposition 8 will stand.

Those married before can stay married - but no new marriages for persons of the same sex. Click title for link to actual decision document.

Philadelphia - May 2005

Way back in 2005, a dozen or so of us - people from Lake Worth - attended a conference on "Advancing Regional Equity." Our attendance at the symposium was funded by the CRA. Here are just some of the people that attended - you might recognize them. To trigger your collective memories or to introduce you to some of the concepts, I've included what turned out to be a copious set of notes on the topics covered. You can click the title for immediate access.

One of the major themes of the conference was the "Double or Triple Bottom Line." In the attached notes, this section begins where you see the highlighted yellow line. The basic concept is that when a business interest invests in a community, it has expectations of a profit. However, the community also has needs that must be addressed and it should also profit "socially" from that investment made by that business. This can be in the form of hiring preferences for local people, domestic partner benefits for employees, etc. Increasingly, the third bottom line is the environmental benefit - global to local - that is expected. This would relate to green building practices, use of native and drought tolerant landscaping materials, supportive actions encouraging mass transit, etc.

Well, guess what - you can't just have the second and third bottom lines without the first bottom line being satisfied. You first need the desire of a business interest to invest in your community and you need to allow for the expectation that investment will reap its rewards. If you don't, the other two never follow. Given the actions of the current members of the dais, I ask how are we ever going to get there? Again, the Policy of "No" raises its ugly head.

To think we attended the same conference but came back with such different interpretations of what was talked about - makes you wonder how open to new ideas some people are. If you have a moment or two, review my notes and you will see that Lake Worth would be an improved place if we had implemented some of these ideas instead of the Policy of "No."

The Policy of "No" will never achieve a worthwhile bottom line - but it will help take our city to the bottom.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Planning Seminar - Last Friday 5/22

If you are a certified urban planner (American Institute of Certified Planners), you must maintain your certification by taking certain approved seminars in an effort to keep current on trends and changes in the planning profession. There was one last Friday and the schedule for the day is above. This was the second year the Planning Congress put on this sort of seminar with the theme of Planning Challenges of the 31st Century...with the subtitle "Unbreaking the Egg..." - essentially acknowledging the multitude of changes and crises that are happening around us at this point in time.

County Commissioner Jeff Koons gave a brief talk on the County's efforts to make in-fill development happen easier and faster in the unincorporated area of Palm Beach County - particularly along Military Trail and Congress Avenue. They recognize the wasteful land use pattern and its dependence on the automobile, to the exclusion of other modes of transit. He also talked about an emphasis on improving Palm Tran service along Military Trail as part of that effort. The County is also doing a lot on a regional basis with Broward and Dade counties, both with establishing passenger service on the FEC and other regional transit solutions.

Most distressing was the report from the state legislature as given by two representatives - Carl Domino and Mark Pafford. Both said that about a third of the legislature was brand new this year and they made it seem like most found it difficult to learn where the bathrooms were, let alone what happens in a committee meeting or how to get a bill introduced. Both reminded those in attendance that moaned against the loss of transit money - for Tri Rail, etc. - that many times there are other items in bills that make them unpalatable - even though the main item may be something people can rally around.

I was disappointed by the talk from the FPL representative and the other speaker. All they seemed interested in talking about was expanded use of solar and how they will be adding all kinds of megawatts of capacity soon. I asked the question about where their estimates of demand are coming from, how conservation fits into the equations and what sort of draw do reverse osmosis plants put on the electric grid (I hear it's significant - RO is not the greenest solution, but it may be the only solution.)

Dr. Jaap Vos did a great job at summing up the session. He obesrved that we have all sorts of MAJOR problems that we need to face as a society that are planning related. These will affect the life and health of the communities where we live - in the short and long term. He suggested - more like implored - that we engage in vigorous dialog about these issues because no one has a monopoly on the truth. By getting together and talking about these grave issues that we face, we have a better chance at finding solutions.

My question, which I didn't ask there but am asking now, is if we can't have an open forum where our input is meaningful, where we are not written off just because we are who we are, what chance do we have of making Lake Worth a better place to live? How do mid-day, little notice meetings help the cause? How does springing ideas at the last minute after a five year process help come to a consensus?

All the talk at this seminar was how we need to direct growth to the east to prevent further sprawl in the west. What's it going to be like ten years from now when Lake Worth is five unit to an acre community - almost rural - consuming more land per capita than everyone around us? How is that not a selfish act? Couldn't our density problem really be on the dais and not in the neighborhoods in which we live?

Memorial Day Tribute

These are from my trip to Washington, DC in April of this year.

And the immortal Judy Garland singing her signature song to the troops - 1943...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Reading between the lines: The Policy of "No"

Looking back over the last few years, a pattern emerges in the outcome or response to major issues in the city of Lake Worth. I'd like to share of couple of items with you and I think you'll come to a similar conclusion: That the majority of the current Commission and their supporters find it easier to say "no" than to find ways to creatively say "yes" to change, to investment and to a better quality of life for Lake Worth residents.

Back when Mayor Marc Drautz was elected, I was sitting as chairman of the Planning and Zoning, Historic Resources Preservation Board (PZHRPB). That was March of 2005. It happened to coincide with the time when the economy was fundamentally different than it is now. As we now know, billions and billions of dollars were available in the credit markets for the purchase and development of residential housing units. The "boom" in south Florida started in Miami and crept up the coast and found its way to Lake Worth. This phenomenon was a global, national, regional and eventually local event.

Nothing of any major consequence had been built in Lake Worth for years. Suddenly, we found ourselves with PZHRPB agendas full of requests for townhouses. Many of these projects were proposed along major corridors in the city and usually involved the demolition or relocation of sometimes historic structures in order to accommodate the new housing units, the additional tax base, creating a buffer for the interior neighborhoods and attracting people with disposable incomes that could help support our local economy. When proposals started coming in for our historic residential areas already zoned 20 and 30 units to the acre north and south of our historic downtown, many people - especially those that supported Mayor Drautz - called for a "moratorium" on development. Period - end of story. Here we saw the Policy of "No" first come into play. (Some might argue that was back when the beach bond issue failed in 2002, but that's for another discussion.)

If you recall, at the time we were well into our Master Plan leading to Comprehensive Plan and new Zoning Code process. We had been through much of the solicitation of public input and had a bevy of consultants handy that were involved in the process. We - the PZHRPB - came up with a way to protect the most historically sensitive areas of the city. I remember saying many times that we had to "preserve what makes Lake Worth, Lake Worth." That way was a series of "zoning in progress" measures that could be implemented right away and not have to wait for the ultimate approval of a Comprehensive Plan or change in the Zoning Code. That ultimate change has yet to happen, by the way.

It was difficult to put together this "zoning in progress" and it took no less than about ten (10) public meetings before the Stakeholders Advisory Committee, the PZHRPB and the City Commission. But it passed and, generally speaking, everyone walked away satisfied that our most precious historic assets were protected from speculation and that redevelopment was left to areas where the city needed it the most. This was courtesy of heavy lifting by a lot of people. It represented a Policy of Creative "Yes" - where there was a win-win and where there was compromise.

Our current Policy of "No" offers no compromise and usually results in a lose-lose result. Allow me to illustrate.

The basis for our re-make of the Comprehensive Plan (once the new one gets adopted) was to make sure we transitioned between residential and commercial properties when they redeveloped. It also was to lay the basis for bonuses in height and density if there were other public goals being met by the project - like affordable/workforce housing, a mix of uses, green building techniques, promotion of biking or mass transit etc. In order to get the private sector to perform the way the city wanted them to, they would have to do what we wanted as part of their project. But they also would get to benefit through additional return on investment in the form of more square footage and/or additional units. But, the benefit had to outweigh the cost - from an investment point of view.

Under Commissioner Jennings' proposal, where is the incentive for the private sector to help achieve public sector goals by limiting height to 25' and giving just one floor as an incentive? We actually don't event know exactly what the Commissioner's proposal is since it hasn't been in writing or distributed. I understand that the current PZHRPB chairman doesn't have a copy either. Is this going to be offered to the PZHRPB to review even? From what I have heard about the changes, and already touched on in this forum, is that they are right in line with the Policy of "No" - no investment, no redevelopment, no jobs, no public benefit - just continued conditions of slum and blight.

Let's move on to the water issue which is another example of the Policy of "No" in action. Quick time line: We studied whether to do our own Reverse Osmosis plant or go with Palm Beach County, we chose to be a "full service city" had have our own RO plant, we started to build the plant but were stalled when the disposal method (ocean outfall) couldn't get permitted, SFWMD limited the amount of water we could draw from the existing aquifer and we had a projected shortfall without the RO plant coming on line. We were then forced to negotiate with the County for water with no other alternative. That would have provided more water than we need. According to the current city commission, the agreement is terrible from the city's point of view. So we're not abiding by it. We stiffed the County on a $6 million payment and we are still waiting for the County's response. We are now going forward with another RO plant - funding through our water rates that will increase from last years' over 86% in five years. Our current water rates are already higher than most Palm Beach County communities.

What is the sum total effect of another action based on the Policy of "No?" Our water system may not serve our needs during the heaviest need times of the year - making a "no water in the pipes" scenario a possibility, if not a probability. This could go on for two or three or more years until our own new RO plant in on line. Commissioner Jennings wants big signs at the city limits now saying, in essence, "Go Away - Water Crisis in Lake Worth." If that doesn't do it, then a quick analysis of new residents' and potential investor's water cost in relation to other area communities will make their decision whether to invest in Lake Worth or not for them...and us.

Now, granted water is a very real resource issue that we all have to grapple with and the sooner the better. But how is leaving the city without any options other than draconian water conservation measures - or (and you bet your boots this is coming) a moratorium on development. Wouldn't we then have come full circle and then between the way redevelopment is regulated and the way the city's water situation, we have what supporters of the Policy of "No" wanted all along - nothing to happen. Period.

This Policy of "No" extends into city staff. I have always said during my career in both the private and public sectors that the easiest answer a bureaucrat can give is "no." Nothing to justify, don't need to stick your head out, just say "no." Well, the Policy of "No" ends up doing nothing about the log jams in the building department, code enforcement or utilities customer service. Getting to Creative "Yes" solutions would mean being held accountable, opening the door to change and subjecting yourself to those that don't want to talk about all the potential of Lake Worth. Many would like to throw a little more dirt on the city's sign, just to make sure someone wouldn't make the decision to move or invest - actually wanting to improve the quality of life here.

Yes, we have potential, but that doesn't mean much if we let it sit on the shelf and collect dust. Other municipalities are all about positioning themselves strategically for a better future in a wildly dynamic environment. The days of looking the other way and "lose-lose" solutions must come to an end. We need leadership that can lead us to a Creative "Yes" where compromise is not a dirty word and everyone goes away with something.

Cities offer new services - to other cities Boynton Beach sees revenue in providing building services for cities

Click above for link to Sun Sentinel article. Laura Hannah is quoted - from the article:
"It was, bottom line, what's the best way, the easiest way and most feasible way to do this?" Laura Hannah, Lake Worth's assistant city manager, said. "Boynton's offer certainly helps us out. It helps them out... both of us, in our respective operations."
I understand the building department function and thought that it might be worth knocking at Palm Beach County's door for this. Contractors are familiar with their system - since almost all have done business in the unincorporated county. I'm not sure it's a good idea to ship off the "Planning" function to another city. I think that, over the long term, that function should be handled on more of a regional/countywide basis.