In a special meeting Thursday, Oct. 26, attended by an overflow crowd of residents, the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council voted to conduct emergency grading and fill to roads that are in the most need of repair after being damaged during Hurricane Irma.
During public comment, several residents said the roads are in worse shape than they have ever been, with some potholes deep enough for cars to fall into them.
Mayor Dave Browning said the meeting had been called to give town management direction regarding grading services.
Town Manager Bill Underwood explained that the town had recently assumed additional work on roads conveyed by the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District. Some were in disrepair before the storm.
“We need to be able to take care of that,” Underwood said. “Thus far, the town has only managed the roads for the last 27 days. The roads didn’t get the way they are in the last 27 days, maybe the last 10 years. At any rate… we’ve been handling crisis issues in the roads. What we want to do is have a contractor or multiple contractors that can provide grading services.”
Underwood noted that he had expressed to the council during various budget meetings that this was going to be a very difficult transition year taking on the additional roads.
“We don’t have in place the monetary mechanism to get funding [for] what we need to do,” he said, explaining that the town receives about $400,000 a year in gas tax revenues and has never billed residents for road maintenance.
“It has come through the state, and that’s what we’ve done, so what we’re looking for direction on is, do we contract them?” he asked. “I think we need to find another vendor. We also need to find another funding mechanism… I have offered up to the council an opportunity to put into place a special assessment, which would provide funding. We have roughly $290,000 available for maintenance on the roads.”
Underwood explained that the town has a contract with Bergeron Land Development for maintenance of 23 miles of roads, but it now has about 42 miles of dirt roads.
“We have to accommodate all that in the roughly $290,000, and I’ve got about $70,000 in the reserve,” he said. “I think we need a lot more than that.”
Last year, the town spent about $600,000 to maintain the 23 miles of roads. “We don’t have $600,000 a year to do that,” Underwood said. “We need a funding mechanism, and it can be through ad valorem taxes; it can be through assessments. Otherwise, there is not the funding to manage the roads the way the citizens would like.”
He said the town can give residents the roads they want, whether it’s dirt, open-graded emulsified mix (OGEM) or asphalt, but does not have the money to pay for it.
Underwood stressed that the town needs $500,000 or $600,000 a year to maintain the roads, and that South B Road, which was recently paved with asphalt, has not required maintenance.
Councilman Dave DeMarois asked how much money will be needed to maintain the roads, and Underwood said it depends on what level of service the residents want.
“I’m all for dirt roads, I know the horse people want them, but dirt roads cost money,” he said, explaining that the town will need another $300,000 in addition to the $290,000 it has to get through the rest of the fiscal year.
The storm has also put a damper on things. “The hurricane has hampered some of our dollars,” Underwood said. “We’re going to spend a lot of money, and we’re not likely to get it back anytime soon from FEMA.”
Town Attorney Michael Cirullo said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is currently repaying for damages incurred from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Underwood said the town is probably years from recovering its costs from Hurricane Irma, explaining that the town removed about 22,000 cubic yards of debris from the storm. He added, however, that the amount the town has left for maintenance is way down, plus remaining bills, including from the Solid Waste Authority for debris, have yet to arrive.
DeMarois asked about an estimate of 1,119 loads of rock that had been submitted by Bergeron to bring the 23 miles of roads it was contracted to do up to grade. Underwood said the new amount will be much greater than that, with additional roads and damage from the hurricane.
Browning said an additional contractor is needed in order to get on the roads right away.
“We did an emergency grading right after the storm that did not involve the contractor that we have, but they did not include the roads that we received in the last 30 days,” Browning said. “Those are the ones that are the major problem. We have to do emergency filling with rock of these holes. It is an emergency situation. We’re putting out a lot of fires, and we need to get these roads done.”
Councilman Todd McLendon said a lot more than just grading is needed, agreeing with a resident who works with the Florida Department of Transportation who said the roads must have proper drainage.
“Every major issue that we’ve had the past two weeks has been with standing water because there is no drainage,” McLendon said. “Simply grading the roads and making them smooth isn’t going to faze the drainage. For years, the district used to cut in and make the water drain into people’s property. A lot of people don’t want that, and they fill it and plug it back in. People put berms on the side of the road because they don’t want the water draining on their property.”
He said that putting drainage areas on the side of the roads will fix many of the issues.
Browning added that the town has given the LGWCD almost $1.4 million over the past 10 years to maintain the roads the town just received, but the district had not put down the rock needed to keep them up to grade. “The roads are maybe a foot lower that they used to be, so now there’s no place for the water to go,” he said.
Browning added that the town has long advocated for control of the roads in order to reduce confusion by residents calling for service. “Tonight, we are trying to get contractors on board that will begin to take care of these roads,” he said.
Browning said the town had asked for an additional $300,000 in the budget to cover the expanded Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office contract, which involved a rate hike to 2.6 mills that required unanimous approval, but it was shot down by a single council member.
“Understand that this year, everybody’s ad valorem taxes, that means every dollar you pay… goes to the sheriff’s contract,” he said.
DeMarois asked whether there is a mechanism that the town can use to do a special assessment, and Cirullo said the town has an ordinance in place that enables special assessments without voter approval, but the town has to show that the cost is commensurate with the benefit residents receive.
Vice Mayor Ron Jarriel said the council could address it by raising the ad valorem taxes, although that would not be until next year. Jarriel added that the LGWCD assessment to residents assumes that 60 percent will be for roads that it no longer has, which he believed should now come to the town.
After more discussion, Jarriel made a motion to continue to authorize the town manager to use the emergency services provisions of the town code until it can award a new contract for grading and maintenance of the new town roads, and to address new issues as they come up. The motion also included a provision for staff to make a request for proposals regarding maintenance of the additional roads. The motion carried 5-0.