Longtime Royal Palm Beach Councilman David Swift received a service award from the Florida League of Cities last week.
At the Royal Palm Beach Village Council meeting on Thursday, June 16, Carol Westmoreland from the Florida League of Cities presented Swift with the John Land Years of Service Award, signed by the Florida League of Cities Board of Directors, recognizing Swift for 29 years of service.
“This is the best part of my job,” Westmoreland said. “It’s a thrill to recognize elected officials who have such a long service with one entity. I think it’s a miracle in this day and age. I think you will agree, but the league comes saying thank you so much for your membership and contributions.”
Swift took the council on a trip down memory lane, noting that he has worked with many special people during that time.
“My political career started in 1984,” he said. “I think I was 39 at the time, and Mayor [Sam] Lamstein appointed me to the Planning & Zoning Commission, and all I remember was all the members resigned and I became chairman,” he said. “This was their protest that Mayor Lamstein was appointing this young whippersnapper to the commission. They said, ‘What the heck does he know? This is our village.’ Basically, all of the commission members were over 70 years old at the time. I’m 71 now, just so you know.”
At the time, Swift said many seniors were concerned that their retirement community was rapidly changing, with many young families like his with children moving into the village.
“They believed that these new arrivals would increase village taxes in support of new schools and youth programs,” he said.
At that time, council meetings were extremely raucous, and they often extended until midnight, he said.
“To address all the new development applications and changes coming to the village, people were very concerned, and they really attended these meetings,” he said. “During that time, Mayor Lamstein actually had his eye on the future. He did his homework and made a determination that we needed to purchase the water utility from the original developer of the village, Royal Palm Beach Colony.”
Lamstein was concerned about increasing water rates, and also believed it was a great business at the time and he wanted to keep taxes low, Swift recalled. After much heated discussion by the council, the village purchased the utility for $13 million. Lamstein was criticized by many of his residents that this purchase was ill-advised, and he almost did not get re-elected because of it, Swift said.
“With the exception of Sam Lamstein’s vision of the future, no one understood at the time how important this purchase would be to the village for the next 20 years,” he said.
Fast-forwarding to 1994, Swift said the village had suffered for a number of years from poor management at the executive and legal levels.
“The council recognized the need to bring in a seasoned, well-respected village manager to turn things around, and I am proud to say that I was on the council when we hired the late David Farber,” he said. “Dave went right to work and began to systematically hire his professional team. He hired Trela White of Corbett & White, and she was brought on board to settle a number of outstanding lawsuits against the village at the time, and also to keep us out of future lawsuits.”
In 1999, Farber hired a young engineer, Ray Liggins from Kissimmee, who had managed that city’s water utility as a population of about 20,000 increased to 35,000, Swift said.
“[It was] the same population increase that the Village of Royal Palm Beach was expected to go through over the next 10 years, so we had a new staff on board that knew what they were doing,” Swift said.
In 2006, then-Mayor David Lodwick, Farber and Liggins took a close look at the water utility in light of the fact that Palm Beach County had recently laid water lines in the village in anticipation that it would move north to connect with Mecca Farms to serve the planned Scripps Research Institute locating there.
“Unfortunately for the county, a lawsuit killed that deal, and the county was left with millions of dollars of water lines buried in the ground with no one to connect to,” Swift said. “We thought it was a good time to talk to the county about the possible benefits of selling our utility service area to the county.”
After long negotiations, the village sold its utility to Palm Beach County for $70 million and froze the village’s water rates for the next 10 years. Money from that sale is still supporting the village, and has also allowed the village to make some major purchases, such as the failed golf course that became the village’s signature park.
“This property became what we now know today as Royal Palm Beach Commons Park,” Swift said. “Mayor Lodwick was criticized for moving too quickly on this purchase. Again, no good deed goes unpunished. But in hindsight today, everybody agreed it was the right thing to do. Today, the park is the central showpiece of our community… And the best thing about it is that it is paid for and the village is debt-free.”
The sale of the old wastewater treatment plant site last year was the crowning accomplishment in the village’s utility saga, Swift said.
“I have to commend Ray Liggins and his staff and fellow councilpersons in their tireless effort to work out a deal to sell this property and develop a plan to build homes compatible with the surrounding areas, also netting the village another $34 million,” Swift said.
Altogether, the sale of the utility and the wastewater plant land brought in more than $100 million.
“I’m not sure Sam saw the $100 million, but he was on the right track, and we have placed Royal Palm Beach in a very enviable position of having more than $50 million in reserves,” Swift said. “I just want to say that I am very proud of having worked with all of our professional staff, and am proud of what this council and our previous councils have done over the last 25 years.”
ABOVE: Councilman David Swift.