As Referendum Looms, LGWCD Criticized For Flooding Inaction

The Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Board of Supervisors held what might have been its last meeting as an independent district on Monday, preparing to hand over control to the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council if that becomes a reality.

Dependency of the district hangs on a referendum that will be held on Monday, June 25 based on acreage proxy votes of property owners.

Supervisors added several items to the agenda, including recent flooding issues and advertising a special meeting on June 26 at Loxahatchee Groves Town Hall to cede control of the district to the town if the referendum passes.

LGWCD Chair Anita Kane said the district needs to advertise for the meeting, explaining that the council would meet at 10 a.m., and the board’s meeting would commence at 10:30 a.m. on June 26.

During public comment, Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia said she was disappointed when the town was flooded during recent rains that the LGWCD did not make cut-outs on the flooded roads for drainage.

“I realize you guys don’t do roads anymore, but we were in an emergency mode,” Maniglia said. “It was a little upsetting that you guys did not bail out the taxpayers of this town, so they could have safe roads to drive on.”

Maniglia added that she was concerned that canal banks are falling in after heavy rains, preceded by a drought that killed much of the plant growth that had served to impede the banks from collapsing.

The board also discussed recent flooding and whether the district or the town was responsible for relieving it.

LGWCD Administrator Stephen Yohe said the flooding relief involved work to be done on roads, which the district no longer has responsibility for, since it turned them over to the town.

Kane said she understands that the district is no longer in the road business, but when they were in the middle of an emergency — with private citizens renting pumps and taking their own equipment out on the roads to relieve flooding — the district did not use its equipment to help.

“For us to sit here and do nothing seems lackadaisical to me, and it’s very frustrating,” she said, adding that she had been told by district staff that the town had not asked for assistance. “Yes, they did ask. The town did make the request. Two town council members specifically requested it from me, and the town manager and I forwarded that request to Mr. Yohe, and the request made to me was to go and do the cut-outs.”

Kane said the district staff should have sprung into action during the emergency.

“I find it just remarkably unbelievable, when we have neighbor helping neighbor out, when we have people pulling money out of their own pockets to save other people’s well-being… literally hundreds of people helping each other. For the water control district as a government entity of the town to say, ‘We can’t do anything,’ I find that reprehensible. I’m ashamed to be a part of a group that had to say that.”

LGWCD Attorney Mary Viator said the district had not been asked officially, pointing out that the district turned roads over to the town in 2017 and no longer has authority to work on the roads.

Viator added that the LGWCD should have some sort of agreement with the town for the district to go onto the roads in order not to open the district to legal action. “I never saw anything in writing from the town making this request of the district,” she said.

In other business, the board approved an offer by Southern States Land & Timber to provide the district a quit claim deed for any claims it has to the district’s rights of way, less the mineral rights, in exchange for a $27,000 payment from the district.

“Southern States denied the district’s request to forego retaining the mineral rights,” Yohe said, explaining that he did not foresee the district not having mineral rights as impeding the business of the district. “The district has no debts on those canals, so I can’t imagine them ever having to deal with that issue. If Southern States exercises their mineral rights, they cannot affect the surface. They have to do it with directional drilling and never impact the district’s works.”

Supervisor Laura Danowski made motions to approve the quit claim and payment to Southern States, which carried 5-0.

Also Monday, the board postponed the contracting of payroll consultant services for employees’ healthcare until after the dependency referendum on June 25.

Kane asked Yohe if he had been in contact with the town about possibly taking over payroll services, as had been suggested by Vice Mayor Todd McLendon, and he had not.

Supervisor Connie Bell asked if the requested new time clock had been installed, and Yohe said it had been as of that day.

“We’ll have to have each of the employees now come in and put in their thumbprint and start utilizing it,” Yohe said, adding that the clock can interface digitally with the bookkeeping program.

Bell recommended holding off on spending more money for consulting services until after the referendum.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in two weeks,” she said. “We may not be tied to payroll. If we become dependent, the town may want to use a different program or do something different.”

Yohe added that the time clock and hookup had been done in-house for less than $1,000.

Supervisor Simon Fernandez received board consensus to have Yohe talk with town officials about implementation so there is a smooth transition if dependency comes about, although Danowski said she felt any discussion would be pointless until after the referendum.

The board also agreed to defer hiring a consultant to assess the condition of the district’s equipment storage barn, which has been found to have some structural issues.

“I don’t think we should do anything,” Bell said. “What if they want to sell the property? What if they want to tear the barn down? We can see there are some structural issues there that need to be addressed, but I think this should be tabled until after the dependency [vote].”

The board also discussed canal bank erosion, which accelerated during recent rains.

Yohe said that the district monitors canal bank erosion, and anything that is deemed to be a threat to life and safety is addressed as quickly as possible.

“This past year, I would have to say it is particularly pronounced, because of when we lowered the waters for Hurricane Irma last year, and also during the extended drought that we had throughout the year where a lot of the vegetation on the berms died.”

Supervisor Karen Piesley asked how the fill used on the canal banks was stabilized, and Yohe said the fill is seeded, and added that the operation is not doable when it rains every day.

Bell asked what the three remaining staff members had been doing, and Yohe said they had been occupied with repairing pumps and other equipment that had failed.

Kane and other supervisors said they were frustrated that projects approved by the board had not been done.

“I understand that we’re tight with staff, but we voted six months ago to blow out the culverts, and nothing has happened,” she said. That’s something we hired an outside company to do, so that doesn’t even require staff. I’m concerned that a lot of the projects that we’ve already discussed, voted on and asked to be moved forward have not moved forward.”

Bell noted that most of the district’s projects are outsourced and do not require staff. “I don’t understand why these projects didn’t get started before this,” she said.