Groves Council Will Keep Management Firm Another Year

In a 4-1 decision Tuesday, the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council retained Underwood Management Services Group for another year despite rumblings among some council members that they might want to seek a new firm, start hiring town employees or alter Underwood’s contract.

Councilman Jim Rockett, who favored putting out a request for proposals or hiring town employees, said he thought the management company’s expenses were increasing beyond council control.

“We have ignored the possibility of having employees,” said Rockett, who was the lone dissenter in the vote to extend the Underwood contact one year. “I think we ought to take a look at that. I don’t believe it’s any more expensive.”

Rockett added that he did not like the layer of the management company between the council and employees, because he thought it was hampering the council’s ability to run town business.

“I think we need to go out for an RFP, and we owe it, I think, to our constituents to say we are trying to get the lowest price for the service that we have,” he said.

The management company now collects almost $330,000 a year, including $75,000 annually for planning and zoning services, which the council approved in May 2012 after the town took over those services from Palm Beach County.

Councilman Tom Goltzené, who did not favor a change, made a motion to retain Underwood for two years at the same price, and Councilman Ryan Liang seconded the motion to allow discussion.

Goltzené said that putting out an RFP would lead to Underwood staff looking for other employment and probably stall projects that are underway, including a road resurfacing project.

“It takes a long time to get this engine in gear,” he said. “I would hate to lose what momentum we have.”

Goltzené pointed out that all services provided by the management company are covered in its contract fee. “All of these folks’ time is on them,” he said. “They’re not charging you extra unless he specifically says, ‘I’m charging you extra for this specific item.’ They’ve been very good about that, and we’ve been very good about not giving them everything they want.”

He thought the management firm had performed acceptably well, and that the council could have tried harder to work with the management company.

Vice Mayor Ron Jarriel shared Rockett’s concern that the company had become the town’s highest expense.

“I think they’re a top-notch team, Underwood Management, and I think if they’re as good as Tom thinks they are, they’ll come back, and we’ll do what’s best for the town,” Jarriel said. “But I think there are other people out there looking for management jobs. I believe we owe it to the taxpayers when we’re talking about this much money to go out for RFPs and see what kind of competition we’ve got out there.”

Goltzené said he did not think they’d find a cheaper management company.

“Our experience has been the opposite both times, and it’s interesting that the two or three people who were so adamant that we bring these folks here want to get them gone now,” he said. “Do you honestly think that the new guy is going to come in and you’re going to see your road projects?”

Goltzené noted that a switch would mean four management companies in the eight years since incorporation. “I don’t know that people are going to be clamoring to knock down our doors,” he said.

Councilman Ryan Liang asked whether the town could change portions of the Underwood contract, and Town Attorney Michael Cirullo said that would be up to negotiations. “I think you have some flexibility, but it has to be reciprocated,” Cirullo said.

Mayor Dave Browning agreed that he’d like to see parts of the contract changed, adding that he wished management company employees had not spoken at the Loxahatchee Groves Landowners’ Association meeting in November about their perception that the town and the council needed to change their attitudes toward the way their government runs.

“[Bill Underwood] basically told the landowners it was the town that needs the learning curve, not Underwood, and I think that got a lot of people riled up,” Browning said. “At the same time, I am against going with employees. That will make us like every other town. The only reason I supported incorporation was because we were going to do something different.”

Browning was also concerned about the town’s high turnover of management companies. “Are we hard to work with? Sure,” he said. “We’re still understanding what we’re doing. I did not vote to bring in Underwood as our management team, but I really do not want to change right now. I think we need to sit down and talk with them about some of the things that we are doing.”

He agreed that putting out an RFP would only create turmoil.

“If we put out for RFPs, every employee they’ve got is going to be looking for another job,” Browning said. “If we think we’re going to get a lower rate, I really don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Browning added that he agreed there is a learning curve, but stressed that the onus is on the management company, not the town and the council.

“Bill, you’ve got to understand something — our town is our town,” he said. “We don’t need to come over to your way of thinking.”

“I wholeheartedly agree,” Underwood replied. “The issue is that some people have indicated that we don’t know what we’re doing.”

Rockett said he would not agree with a two-year extension, and that he did not believe Town Manager Mark Kutney is the right person for the position.

“We need another town manager, even if it is the same Underwood organization,” Rockett said. “Is this personal? It’s not. That’s my assessment.”

Rockett said he believes the town is paying for things that are not in the contract and that stipulations in the contract are not being followed. He said he’d like to cut staffing in half, and look at ways to remove or reduce some items to free up resources to get more done.

“If we can do that through negotiation, I’d be in favor of that, but I would only be in favor of that for one year. I would want to see what they would do with the change that we made,” he said.

Underwood said he did not see where significant reductions could be made, and pointed out that expenses come out of their contract and that none additional have been approved. He added that if an RFP were issued, Underwood Management would not participate.

“I think we are providing you more than a minimum amount of time,” he said. “We provide you with hundreds if not thousands of hours a year in excess of what you ask for. We do that because we want to do a good job, for you and for the citizens.”

Goltzené’s motion for a two-year extension failed 3-2, with Rockett, Liang and Jarriel opposed. Goltzené made a new motion for a one-year extension, which carried 4-1 with Rockett opposed. No specific mention was made of further negotiations.