Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay has many goals for the coming year countywide, as well as in her own District 6, which includes some of the poorest and most affluent areas of the county.
“My district is so diverse, there are a whole lot of different areas to focus on,” McKinlay told the Town-Crier. “I will start way, way out west in the Glades communities, continuing to support any sort of infrastructure improvements and economic development opportunities. We are in the middle of our legislative session right now. We have been on the phone around the clock the last 48 hours making sure that we hold legislators’ feet to the fire on the promises they made under Senate Bill 10 to reinvest in workforce economic development and infrastructure projects in the Glades.”
McKinlay, who was with the county’s lobbying staff before being elected commissioner in 2014, is also working with the staff to put pressure on the federal government to speed up repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee so there are no more evacuations from the Glades region like what happened during Hurricane Irma.
“It was a dangerous situation when you didn’t have hospitals open, and it’s a wide stretch across Florida — almost the whole State Road 80 corridor had to be evacuated because the projection kept shifting,” she said.
Another issue in the Glades area is to make sure that farmers can still farm.
“We faced some threats last year to agricultural production,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything that supports taking any land out of active agricultural production. I was happy to see that the legislature was actually able to get the reservoir they needed working around those concerns.”
Housing issues are a concern, both in substandard Glades housing, and a lack of affordable housing throughout the rest of Palm Beach County.
“People can’t afford to live here,” McKinlay said. “Families, teachers can’t afford to live here. We need those people in our community to make our community, and we don’t have anywhere affordable to put them.”
Proper growth management is an ongoing issue, with recently approved communities such as Westlake, GL Homes, Avenir and Arden coming in.
“We need to make sure we don’t have something the size of Fort Lauderdale being built in The Acreage,” McKinlay said. “I hope that GL Homes will take a look at their proposal to keep 5,000 acres in The Acreage in crop production and transfer some of those units down to some other parts of the county. I think that is something we should continue to explore.”
GL Homes withdrew its application to transfer most of its development rights south after getting pressure from the Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations (COBWRA), a powerful lobbying group there.
“So many people talk about wanting their food to be locally produced and locally sourced,” McKinlay said. “If we’re serious about that, we have the opportunity to protect 5,000 contiguous acres that are farmed by six of this country’s largest and most well-respected growers. These are big-time farm operations, and I’d like to protect it.”
Crucial to Wellington and Loxahatchee Groves, conversations about controlling the dumping of equine waste need to continue, she said, after locating a waste recycling center in the agricultural area was shot down last year over farmers’ concerns about produce contamination.
“We have met with interested parties in trying to find alternative locations to be able to do an equestrian waste recycling facility,” McKinlay said. “You can put equestrian waste down on a sugar cane field. That’s what they’re doing right now. U.S. Sugar has taken hundreds of thousands of tons of equestrian waste over the years.”
McKinlay explained that the way sugar cane is harvested and processed, any contaminants are destroyed, but that is not the case with fresh produce, such as lettuce, peppers, corn or green beans.
“The produce farmers got wind of what was going on,” she said. “They hadn’t been included in the initial conversation because of the noticing requirements. They didn’t hear about it until we thought we had found a solution.”
Palm Beach County is one of the largest producers of fresh vegetables, which are sold all over the world.
“The farmers came to us and said, ‘This is going to kill us.’ Agriculture is the second leading industry in Palm Beach County,” she noted, explaining that the county had to backtrack on the idea.
However, they are talking to the Solid Waste Authority about property it owns that may be appropriate for an equine waste recycling facility outside any agricultural area.
“We met with the person who had the original proposal out in the EAA, so he is putting something together for staff at the Solid Waste Authority to take a look at,” McKinlay said. “It’s up to them to come back to us with a proposal.”
The statewide opioid epidemic is another issue that McKinlay wants action on.
“We’ve been heavily in a conversation now for over a year,” she said. “We have more than $3 million sitting in our budgets. We will finally see some forward momentum on our next agenda.”
The county has spent about $40 million from its new infrastructure improvement 1-cent surtax.
“Our revenues are coming in as projected, slightly higher than projected, which is good news,” she said. “The economy is doing well, so I think we will continue to see those projects doing well. You can see those signs on the side of the road now saying, ‘Your penny at work for you.’”
The county may face some issues if the proposed additional homestead exemption passes.
“We’re looking at, just for the county, for our part of the budget, probably a $30 million impact countywide,” she said. “With the municipalities and the school district, you’re looking at probably $70 million. One of the areas I’m most concerned about would be our fire-rescue MSTU. You could see a $7 [million] to $9 million loss in revenue as we’re trying to open up a new fire station and get additional staff in The Acreage. It will be a real challenge to see where we make up for that loss.”
Property values are going up, however, which could ameliorate the loss from an additional homestead exemption. “We’ll be faced with some tough budget-making decisions in the coming years,” she said.
McKinlay added that it is exciting to be the first representative from the western communities to hold the gavel at the Palm Beach County Commission since 2006.
“It feels good to bring the gavel back to the western communities,” she said. “We have a good board. We don’t see eye to eye on issues, but we respect each other and we work well.”
Any differences between the commissioners is usually that they are coming at questions from different angles, she explained.
“We are all doing what we think is in the best interests of the people who elected us,” she said, noting that districts such as commissioners Steve Abrams’ and Hal Valeche’s are much more conservative than her District 6.
“I think we do a really good job of meeting in the middle,” McKinlay said. “My goal since I got elected was to be really responsive to the local electeds in my district, so I meet regularly with the mayors from all the cities in my district. We meet with managers regularly. Once or twice a year we meet with the heads of all the improvement and community development districts. We work well with all the farm bureaus and all of the economic development agencies. We are very active on social media and following all the different pages… I listen to as many different opinions as I can.”