Groves Budget Includes Funding Share For Horse Trail On Okeechobee

The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council gave preliminary approval to its budget for fiscal year 2020-21 on Tuesday, Sept. 8 after a long discussion on whether to continue pursuit of a cost-sharing grant approved by the Palm Beach County Transportation Planning Agency to build roundabouts, horse crossings and an equestrian path on Okeechobee Blvd.

Plans to turn Okeechobee Blvd. into a “rural parkway” with landscaping and multimodal paths have been in the works for several years, including hiring a consultant to lobby for grant funding, which was approved recently by the TPA. However, a mysterious letter sent recently to residents opposing the project, which has been said to contain flawed information, has swayed public opinion on the idea.

Assistant Town Manager Francine Ramaglia said that the $5.8 million budget includes about $700,000 for capital projects.

“The council’s direction this year was to go back to basics, do community housekeeping, and put in solid and repeatable maintenance for not only roads, but drainage as well, to enhance and improve signage, the mowing and general cleanliness of the town,” Ramaglia said.

The council’s direction was also to finish laying down road rock that has been going on for the last two years.

“The initial estimate of cost on that is $265,000 based on the last two years,” Ramaglia said, adding that another $100,000 is budgeted for road maintenance.

Other projects include repairing OGEM roads estimated at $350,000 and culvert replacement at $300,000.

She said the town is working with consultant Mary McNicholas on several grants that would require the town to provide a 20 percent match in funding.

“The town has been awarded two grants by the TPA,” Ramaglia said. “One of those grants would begin next year when we finalize the agreement. The town is not required to pay a full 50-50 match, but there is a matching portion for it, and it is $490,000 for a multiuse trails system.”

A second grant that would require a town match of about $640,000, which has not yet received final approval, would be awarded in 2024.

“We have balanced the budget [with] the same millage rate as in the last two years at 3 mills,” she said. “We have left the roads and drainage assessment at $200 per [acre] and the solid waste assessment at $450 per unit.”

Ramaglia added that the OGEM paving debt would be paid off in the coming year.

Several residents said they felt repair of local roads was more important than funding the Okeechobee Blvd. project, notwithstanding that the Okeechobee Blvd. project would draw 80 percent of its funding from a grant.

Roadways, Equestrian, Trails & Greenway Committee Member Paul Coleman pointed out that the council two years ago had hired McNicholas, with Geoffrey B. Sluggett & Associates, to solicit grants specifically for equestrian trail development.

“This is one way to make these trails a reality,” Coleman said.

Councilman Robert Shorr said he had changed his mind about funding the Okeechobee Blvd. project because he had found weaknesses in the proposed interlocal agreement with the county that he said might make the town liable for added costs if the county were to change its plans for the road.

Former Councilman Todd McLendon said that the anonymous letter to residents was full of inaccuracies, and that the county had put in writing that the town has exclusive authority regarding the trails.

After more discussion, the council unanimously approved various motions regarding the budget, including funding for the Okeechobee Blvd. project.