Royal Palm Beach Vice Mayor Jeff Hmara reported last week that the Palm Beach County Metropolitan Planning Organization will discuss becoming an independent agency at its meeting on Monday, Dec. 12.
The idea of an independent MPO was discussed briefly at the agency’s last meeting. The MPO makes major planning decisions affecting funding for most roadways in the county.
“Since its inception back in 1979, the MPO has been hosted by the county,” Hmara said at the Dec. 1 meeting of the Royal Palm Beach Village Council. “The members of the MPO staff are county employees, but there is also the fact that it meets in county space. The MPO staff is provided county space for administrative support.”
Hmara said he didn’t know what prompted the discussion, except that there is a desire for greater independence separate from the county and its influence.
“From my point of view, it wasn’t all that great, except when we tried to move the meeting, it was obvious that the county wanted to keep it downtown, but that’s fine,” he said. “The notion that really prompted this is that there would be a clearer chain of command. The MPO would be directly responsive to the board, as opposed to having the influence of county staff over what is actually acted upon by MPO staff.”
Hmara said it was in the early stages of consideration and would be addressed at the Dec. 12 meeting. “That will be the first time that we talk about it substantially,” he said, explaining that MPO Director Nick Uhren was traveling around meeting with MPO members giving the pros and cons of an independent body.
“It will be interesting seeing what the other members of the board think about this notion,” Hmara said. “Clearly, independence comes at a cost, and I mean that literally.”
In addition to staff and space, the county provides upfront financing for grants. “If you were independent, you would have to have enough resources immediately available to replace the county’s funding support, so there are a number of details that need to be worked out,” Hmara said.
There are 21 members on the MPO board, including four county commissioners, he said.
“At some point in time, it may come before us for a decision, and what I would like to do is pull the executive director in here and have him talk to us before it comes before us,” he said.
Mayor Fred Pinto said he would like the village manager to speak with Palm Beach County Engineer George Webb to find out what the impetus is.
“At first blush, this translates to something the county is paying for now that they want the cities to pay for,” Pinto said.
Councilman Dave Swift said he would hesitate to take county influence away from the MPO.
“Mr. Webb and his staff are really the experts of the big picture, and that committee would have to establish its own big picture, and the question is who is going to be behind the science of the whole thing,” Swift said. “You’d have to have the expertise there, and the county has played that role for a long time.”
Swift said that an independent MPO would have to come up with its own staff of traffic professionals.
Hmara said Uhren is in the process of gathering that type of information.
“The amount of staff support that has been provided other than George [Webb] showing up at just about every meeting, which he does, is another issue,” he said. “If you think about their experience and having a primary job, and then you have this other agency that you’re supposed to support… there is some substance to the argument.”
Hmara also updated the council on the status of a lawsuit by the City of West Palm Beach opposing the State Road 7 extension. He said a final decision by the administrative judge has been delayed several times.
“First it was the end of August, and then it was the end of November. I understand that the judge actually did speak at the South Florida Water Management District… Basically what he said was that he has not decided yet and is looking for input from both sides now before a final order. This appears to be the next step, which is a little puzzling to me,” he said, explaining that the administrative judge appeared to be looking for a final order from both sides.
Hmara added that it still looks favorable that the decision will be in favor of the roadway’s completion, and that the final decision is now expected to come in January.