The Loxahatchee Groves Landowners’ Association hosted a candidates forum Thursday, Feb. 22 featuring the three candidates seeking Seat 1 on the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council.
More than 100 residents were on hand to hear from incumbent Ron Jarriel and challengers Phillis Maniglia and Neil O’Neal III. The election will be held on Tuesday, March 13.
Maniglia has been a resident of Loxahatchee Groves since 1989 and lives in one of the town’s oldest homes.
“I have had many jobs in my lifetime, which I feel definitely benefit me in becoming a council member,” she said. “I have been fortunate enough that I am very particular in that when I learn something, I want to learn it well and excel in it.”
She is currently a Realtor working in the community, where she drives the roads regularly.
“I’ve lost a few pounds lately from driving up and down these roads,” Maniglia said. “I would like to say I used to be there with you guys, and I am passionate about my community. I have been involved in going to the meetings, going to the committees and speaking up about my concerns about this town, and they’re probably the same concerns you all have.”
Jarriel is a 57-year town resident who has served for nine years on the council, which followed nine years on the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Board of Supervisors. He is a Marine Corps veteran and a retired firefighter. Originally an opponent of incorporation, he has come to see the benefits of having a municipality to look after local interests.
“My accomplishments on the water control board that I’m very proud of is the North Road project where we put in fire hydrants every 500 feet. We excavated and replaced all the culverts with concrete culverts,” he said. “The county did that at no cost to the residents, and that’s what’s great about it. We had a few people who didn’t want the county to come through Loxahatchee Groves, but it paid off.”
While his work on the council is challenging, Jarriel said he takes great pleasure in serving the community. “We have a lot of people who bash us, but if I can accomplish something during that three-year term that benefits the residents of Loxahatchee Groves, then I will come back,” he said.
He feels that getting Palm Beach State College to locate its new campus in Loxahatchee Groves is one of his greatest accomplishments while on the council.
O’Neal, 21, has lived in Loxahatchee Groves for about eight years.
“I’m a fourth generation Palm Beach County native,” he said. “My family has lived here about 100 years. I decided to run because I think I can be a valued asset to the town. I think that being so young, I bring a fresh perspective. I think that there is definitely a point in time when we need to pass government on to the new generation. With me being young, I’m going to be here for quite a while.”
After graduating from high school, O’Neal attended the University of Central Florida but returned due to family concerns. He has worked for his family’s roofing company and recently obtained his real estate license.
“I think that being involved with the town has helped me gain perspective on the problems that we currently have here,” O’Neal said. “We definitely have roads that need to be fixed. I’m here to hopefully contribute and get the funding that the town desperately needs to fix these roads once and for all.”
The candidates answered a series of questions on town issues, including whether the LGWCD should become a dependent part of the town or remain independent.
Maniglia said she supports making the district dependent to the town. “It costs approximately $700,000 to run the water control district solely with the staff,” she said. “That is not even doing any work. Once we make the water control district dependent, then we will eliminate that $700,000 dent, and we will have control over our canals and hopefully start cleaning them and taking better care of them. I believe that having two governments has been detrimental to our town.”
Jarriel said he strongly supported making the LGWCD dependent to the town initially, but more recently has reserved his opinion.
“The one thing about them becoming dependent is we will be voting on it in October,” he said, explaining that property owners will get one vote per acre owned. “By then, I’ll know whether I’m going to support it or not. I’ve been disappointed in the last six months. It has nothing to do with who’s on the board. We just took over 16 miles of district roads… I voted along with one other council member that we not take those roads over. My main concern was that we could not give you, the people, the same service that you had when the LGWCD was grading the roads.”
O’Neal said it is important for the LGWCD to become dependent to the town.
“I know the plan right now is for the water control district to become the public works department for the town,” he said. “As Ms. Maniglia said, $700,000 will be eliminated when this government agency becomes dependent. I don’t believe it’s in the best interest of any of our taxpayers to continue those $700,000 of unnecessary costs.”
O’Neal said he is aware that the LGWCD recently turned over 16 miles of roads to the town. “If you look at those roads, Bergeron did an assessment of those roads and they are in horrible condition,” he said. “They may have been graded over and over and over on a monthly basis, but as the graders have gone over these roads, it has completely diminished the level that they sit at. We need well over $700,000 worth of rock material on those roads alone just to bring them up to a condition that they can be graded.”
Next, the candidates discussed the future of Okeechobee Blvd.
“I believe that Okeechobee Blvd. should stay at two lanes,” Jarriel said. “I know the county has wanted four lanes, but I know our town has always wanted two lanes. I believe that because of what’s happening right now, we could keep those two lanes if we put in the proper turning lanes… One of the best decisions the council has made was to reduce the speed limit to 30 mph. What I’ve seen with that is that in the last two studies that Palm Beach County did, the traffic flow had been reduced by 18 percent.”
He said that residents have told him that they feel safer pulling out onto the slower traffic now. Jarriel added that he would like to add lights, as well as pedestrian and equestrian crossings.
O’Neal agreed with keeping Okeechobee Blvd. two lanes.
“I know that the county does not have Okeechobee widening in their five-year plan yet, but it is always good to proactively plan and install traffic-calming devices such as traffic circles, lights and equestrian crossings,” he said. “I believe that right now, we don’t have the funding for them. We need to start earmarking funds to go ahead and install those traffic devices.”
Maniglia also agreed that Okeechobee Blvd. should remain two lanes. “I’m not sure that it will go four lanes one day, but currently, I feel that that’s the heart of our town,” she said. “It’s the center of our town, and I would like to see it stay rural and country and not be a cut-through for Westlake. I envision our farmers and organic growers to be able to sell their products and their produce on Okeechobee Blvd. I would welcome a commercial low business on Okeechobee Blvd. allowing foot traffic.”
When asked how to create financial stability for the town without overburdening residents, O’Neal said the town is significantly underfunded, and to keep the town in the green, it needs to raise the millage rate slightly, pointing out that the town only receives a small fraction, 10 percent, of residents’ property taxes.
Maniglia said town staff had recommended a tax rate increase, but it failed 4-1 on a single dissenting council vote. “He was warned that we needed to increase the suggested millage rate or our roads would suffer, and our town would suffer,” she said. “We are currently suffering.”
Jarriel said the town gets about $120,000 from the new county sales surtax.
“We can use that,” he said. “We have to let them know ahead of time what we’re using it for. On an average a month, we get $20,000 from the six-cent gas tax fund, we get approximately $10,000 from the five-cent gas tax, and the biggest thing is we have $890,000 in the bank waiting to be used.”
Jarriel added that the town is in the process of securing a $5 million bond for road repairs approved by the voters.
Maniglia said she is the best person to sit on the council because she has been involved for many years trying to get things done.
“If you look back at my letters to the editor, the same situations are going on today,” she said. “My first letter was back in 2013.The same problems are today. Our canals are dirty, and our roads are awful. We are not sitting on a pile of money. The money that we do have is allotted for certain projects. Mr. Jarriel has sat over nine years on the water district, nine years on the council. Our town is in the worst shape ever.”
Jarriel said there are many things he has accomplished that he is proud of, including a nine-year canal maintenance plan and a strong drainage plan.
“One reason Loxahatchee Groves does not flood like The Acreage or Wellington and other places around us is because of our capability of getting water out of Loxahatchee Groves,” he said. “We have the best drainage of anybody around.”
O’Neal said his experience in running his family’s business has qualified him to be a councilman.
“Interacting with local governments in permitting with the building departments, I think that definitely qualifies me,” he said. “I think that knowing how a business operates, and knowing how you can’t spend more money than you take in, interacting and making sure that things get done in a timely manner without aggravating customers, or in this case residents.”