The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council gave final approval Tuesday, Sept. 22 to a budget of $5.8 million for fiscal year 2020-21 funded by a property tax rate of 3.0 mills after debating whether to give matching funding to a grant that would fund a multipurpose trail and roundabout on Okeechobee Blvd.
Preliminary approval was given Sept. 8 after an initial discussion whether to OK matching funding given by the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency to fund the Okeechobee Blvd. project, which had been lobbied for by the town.
Several residents, as well as Councilman Robert Shorr, spoke out at both meetings against giving 20 percent matching funding to the multi-million-dollar project, saying the matching money would be better spent on projects more urgently needed, including the continued renovation of roads.
Mayor Lisa El-Ramey asked members of the public opposed to the project how they got their information regarding the Okeechobee Blvd. project, and many said it was from a letter that had been mailed out to residents. “The letter was anonymous and very misleading, and intentionally left out information,” El-Ramey said.
The town has been awarded two grants by the TPA. One of those grants would begin next year requiring a 20 percent match by the town of $490,000 for a multiuse trail 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.
Town Manager Jamie Titcomb reminded the council that budget approval is summary in nature, and any actual spending over $25,000 would need to be specifically approved by the council.
“You have tools and options for this council to utilize throughout the budget year to prioritize and budget the things that are important to you,” Titcomb said.
Town consultant Mary McNicholas, who had worked to get funding for the multiuse trail, said the project is intended to transform Okeechobee Blvd. into a local road that does not bisect the town. She had worked successfully with various councils over the past two years to get Okeechobee Blvd. off the county’s five-year road plan for widening.
“If it’s not on the thoroughfare plan, Palm Beach County does not have the funding to go forward and expand it,” McNicholas said. “The idea is to keep the traffic slow… have the crossings so that we would have specific safety. This multiuse trail is so that you will have safety.”
She pointed out that the project has been approved by multiple agencies, that engineering specifications are necessary for the project to receive final approval, and that she was working on three other matching grants to fund the project.
Shorr said that he had decided to oppose the project based on documents he had read over the past few months, and how the infrastructure surtax earmarked for the project could be spent.
“That money can be spent for infrastructure improvements with a life expectancy over five years,” Shorr said. “You can pave roads; you can put in new culverts.”
Councilwoman Laura Danowski felt the budget should focus more on projects that have been neglected over the years. “We’re playing a decade plus of catch-up,” she said.
In the end, the money for the project was left in the budget, but it was agreed that spending the money would come back for specific approval sometime in the future.
After more discussion, Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia made a motion to approve the tax rate and final budget, which carried 4-1 with Danowski opposed.