As Loxahatchee Groves Town Manager Bill Underwood was preparing to leave his post to be replaced by new Town Manager Jamie Titcomb, he commented this week to the Town-Crier about his departure.
Underwood Management Services Group has been the town’s management company since 2011. Part of Underwood’s exit was the completion of a three-page, 31-item “to-do” list for the new manager.
“This has been an absolute challenge and joy,” Underwood told the Town-Crier on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of wonderful people in town. There’s a few who are not so wonderful. I’m a teacher. I spent 10 to 12 years teaching newly elected officials through the Florida League of Cities at the Institute of Elected Municipal Officials. It’s a passion. I believe in good government, and I believe that elected officials should learn what government is all about.”
At the institute, Underwood taught budgeting and finance.
“Of everything elected officials do, the most important thing that they do is put their money where their mouth is,” Underwood said. “That is the budget. They can have all kinds of rhetoric about wonderful things and where they’re going to go, but it’s all about allocating resources, and that has been a challenge here. It has been a curse and a blessing, as we had some money. We spent a lot of money doing some road repairs, then we got hit with Hurricane Irma, and it soaked up a bunch of money.”
Underwood still does not know what the final bill is because he has not received the invoice from the Solid Waste Authority, but he estimated the hurricane cleanup cost was about $550,000.
“That’s in hard dollars, not including my time, staff time, that type of stuff,” Underwood said, adding that reimbursements are starting to trickle in from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
One of the current council candidates commented that the town had about $2 million in revenue in 2015 that has been largely depleted.
Underwood said in addition to the hurricane losses, the town purchased its town hall from the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce at a cost of about $550,000 and spent another $100,000 renovating the building.
Then, in 2017, the council approved road projects at a cost of about $750,000, putting down rock, building and grading the roads over a period of about 18 months.
Underwood said the town still has money, but it is designated for specific purposes.
“The five-cent gas tax can only be used for new road construction,” he said. “That’s roughly $130,000 a year. If we don’t do new road construction, that money accumulates. I am spending it on the drainage projects, because that’s capital improvement. We didn’t have the ability to spend it before.”
Underwood said the town has received about $400,000 from the one-cent sales surtax approved in a county referendum in 2016.
“I can only spend that on infrastructure and capital improvements,” he said. “You can’t spend it for insurance or the light bill… The last audit report showed we had about $900,000 in the transportation fund, a lot of that being gas tax money. There were funds in capital improvement, which has been transferred over from prior years.”
Underwood said the high points of his tenure as manager included the acquisition of town hall and the merger of the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District into the town. Other accomplishments have included the transition of the town to having full-time employees, a plan that Underwood developed that was interrupted by the abrupt hiring of a new manager.
“It was a plan to be phased-in over a period of years,” Underwood said. “They’re going to probably have a significant sticker shock next year.”
Other high points included getting a full-time dedicated deputy on board for the town and getting South B Road built, which he feels should serve as a model for future road construction.
“I had told the council at that time that if it was not the best built and functional road in Loxahatchee Groves, I would resign immediately,” Underwood said. “Getting that done was significant. The road drains, it doesn’t flood. The problem that the road has, like all the roads have, is the canal banks are sloughing off into the canal, but I think with the merger of the district and the town, that can be resolved.”
In November, the town’s public works director submitted a report that stated the town would need about $7.6 million, including $5 million to refurbish the canal banks where the roads were collapsing and about $2.6 million to repair the eastern edges of the OGEM roads built by the LGWCD to prevent them from deteriorating because there was no drainage put in when they were built.
Underwood is glad he was able to convince the council to see the necessity of putting in proper drainage to preserve the roads.
“It took me three-plus years, but getting the council to see the need to drain the roads, whether they’re dirt or paved, to get the water off the roads so that people can use the roads, I think that was another high point,” he said.
Underwood noted that he has gotten 10 catch basins built and has approval for another 10.
“This is all based on people giving easements,” he said. “The easements are critical because we need a mechanism that the water will get cleansed through the swale area where there’s grass.”
His personal high point was in 2015 when his contract was expiring and there was an outpouring of residents who asked him to stay.
“I was truly touched by those people, and I felt an obligation to assist them,” Underwood said. “It has never happened before in any of my 40 years of doing this. There are a lot of good people here, and a lot of people who want good government.”
Underwood said he is not retiring and that his company has other projects it will pursue.
“There are geographic areas in the state that look to become incorporated like Loxahatchee Groves,” Underwood said. “I’ve been fortunate and have been selected at various locations to provide what is needed as a feasibility study.”
He plans to work mostly out of his home in North Carolina. “Feasibility studies I can do anywhere,” he explained.
Underwood said it is exciting to see the commonality of people who are trying to control their destiny, adding that fiscally sound municipalities have a good mix of residential and commercial uses within their jurisdiction.
Underwood has said that commercial development needs to be encouraged along Southern Blvd. at a higher intensity than the town allows for it to be successful, and industrial uses along Okeechobee Blvd. posing as another use need to be made to pay their fair share.
“I don’t know if the property appraiser takes those properties and values them in their actual usage,” he said.
Underwood is disappointed that the management transition plan he put in place that the council approved was scrapped, but he wishes Titcomb the best.
“The concept that I had gone to them with that they approved was that I would hire an assistant, then that assistant would work with the towns people and the council,” he said. “Then, if it was a match after a period of time, I go away.”
Underwood feels one issue with the town is that some residents are not as vocal at meetings, and they are the ones who suffer.
“Individuals who live here who are paying the taxes, paying the assessments and don’t necessarily have the reduction in their taxes or assessments due to some classification, those are the only people I see who are not necessarily represented by the council, and they are the majority,” Underwood said. “Since they are carrying the burden of the town operations, there should be some deference given to their plight, to their needs and wants.”