After more than three years of discussions, a sharply divided Loxahatchee Groves Town Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday, May 17 to reject a proposed interlocal agreement (ILA) with Palm Beach County for work on Okeechobee Blvd. over concerns regarding rising costs and whether town money should go toward work on county-owned rights of way.
While the bulk of the $3.5 million project would be paid for through a Transportation Planning Agency grant, there is a portion of the money that the town must cover. Since the TPA grant is fixed, several council members expressed concerns that rising costs could leave the town on the hook for money it does not have.
Town Manager Jamie Titcomb explained that the agreement is for future improvements to the Okeechobee corridor including a roundabout, equestrian trails and pedestrian crossings.
“The agreement before you tonight outlines the rules of engagement between the town and the county if we commit to moving forward with them,” he said.
The work was proposed to be over several fiscal years to improve the Okeechobee corridor, and there are several opportunities to discontinue the partnership in the future, Titcomb said, adding that county and town staff worked diligently over a long period of time on the agreement to make it palatable to both parties.
Director of Roadway Production Morton Rose attended the meeting on behalf of the county.
“Some years ago, the town approached the county to help sponsor the grant funding the town received from the TPA,” he said. “We’ve been working quite a bit to get this done.”
If approved, the county would hire a consultant, design the project, put it out to bid and construct the project, he said.
“There have been issues with the town coming up with the funding that was not covered by the grant,” Rose noted. “The spreadsheet lays out how the not-covered funding will be provided by the town.”
Titcomb said the non-grant money was spread out to be as easy as possible for the town to cover.
“The county and the TPA have been extremely gracious in resequencing the grants to make them more affordable to the town and also push the funding out into future fiscal years,” he said.
Public comment on the issue was mixed.
Resident Nina Corning said the fine print in the agreement allows the county to eventually widen the road and eliminate the equestrian trail. The whole purpose was to get the trail and a roundabout, which she said will not be there over the long term.
“We want a roundabout, we want crossings, we want a trail,” she said. “We don’t want a six-foot sidewalk.”
Resident Paul Coleman said that turning down the ILA would be very short-sighted and not show a good vision for the future of the town. He scoffed at the idea that the county would be widening Okeechobee Blvd. anytime soon.
“The county is not going to throw $2 million plus into a project and then turn around and dig it up,” he said. “If we turn this down, what are they going to think when we go back for another grant?”
Resident Mary McNicholas, who has worked as a lobbyist for the town, said that while the county has long-range plans to widen Okeechobee Blvd., she does not expect that to come to fruition soon.
“Anything we can do to continue to protect Okeechobee Blvd., we need to do,” she said. “Palm Beach County does not have the money to expand this road.”
She added that the original goal of the work was for connectivity and safety. “This will increase the safety for pedestrians on the road,” McNicholas said. “The roundabout will prevent T-bone accidents, which are the worst.”
She suggested approving the ILA at least until the pending Okeechobee Blvd. overlay project is done, since the ILA can be canceled later.
Mayor Robert Shorr has been sharply critical of the project from a financial point of view.
“I supported this until the day I saw the price tag to the taxpayers of our town to put something in the county right of way that everything in writing says is temporary,” he said. “There is also the cost for maintenance of it. I have not supported this for quite a while.”
He said if additional funding had been found, he might have reconsidered. “I think we were hoping the state would kick in, but that didn’t happen,” Shorr said.
He noted that construction costs have increased, and the TPA grant is fixed. He scoffed at the idea that turning down one grant would stop the town from getting future grants. “There are many communities that have turned down grants,” he said.
Councilwoman Marianne Miles, who was attending the meeting by phone, has also not been a supporter of the project. “We need something to break our traffic up,” she said. “The TPA grant does not do the trick. The residents are not in favor of the town council spending money like this on a road that we do not own.”
Vice Mayor Laura Danowski read off a list of money that the town would owe by year, suggesting a town obligation of more than $700,000 over the next four years.
“These are very big numbers, and we have a lot of other projects going on in our town that I feel are more important than this,” she said.
Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia, a longtime supporter of the project, was livid over the idea of turning down such a large grant. “If we are not going to do this, then I don’t support continuing with the overlay,” she said.
Councilwoman Marge Herzog felt that the benefits of the project greatly outweighed the costs.
“The grants will cover most of the cost for the design and construction, and there’s a delay in the start of the payments,” she said, giving the council a warning. “People have long-term memories. Turning down this gift that has been presented to us is going to be remembered for a long time.”
The ILA was rejected 3-2 with Maniglia and Herzog in favor. As a follow-up, the council agreed to inform the TPA that they would not be continuing with the grant, which also passed 3-2.
Maniglia was particularly annoyed that the motion only failed because Miles, who was attending by phone, was allowed to vote, even though she would not be considered part of the meeting’s quorum.