Boca, Delray may take county to court over fire-rescue tax


Published Saturday, May 21, 2005 1:00 am
by By Sean Salai


Politicians in Boca Raton and Delray Beach appear headed for court after a joint meeting where Palm Beach County commissioners failed to exempt their taxpayers from funding a countywide emergency dispatch system they do not use.

If the Board of County Commissioners at a June 21 meeting does not reverse its policy to “double-tax” the two cities, leaders of the cities said they would promptly drag the county into protracted mediation hearings.

“It’s a difference of perspective,” Jamie Alan Cole, special counsel for the two cities, told the Boca Raton News. “A countywide dispatch system is great for every city in the county except Boca and Delray, whose taxpayers are already pouring millions of dollars into their own fire-rescue departments.”

Nearly every member of the Delray Beach City Commission and Boca Raton City Council, as well as city managers and city lawyers, attended Thursday’s joint meeting. But four of the seven county commissioners were absent.

Delray spent $3 million to create its current emergency dispatch system while Boca spent $8 million to create one in 2000. Both cities now spend around $2 million a year on operational expenses, their attorneys said.

Boca and Delray tax dollars would account for about 18 percent of the county dispatch tax, to be assessed when homeowners pay their property taxes this fall.

Municipal officials fear the county dispatch tax will total at least $8 million after the county’s upcoming budget meetings, and continue climbing annually.

Jack Osterholt, a former Broward County manager hired by the two cities as a consultant, delivered a brief report Thursday refuting the possible benefits of countywide dispatch for local taxpayers.

Methodically dismissing each benefit described by the county fire chief, Osterholt concluded that “the residents of the two cities receive no benefit whatsoever from countywide dispatch.”

His report clearly frustrated PBC Fire-Rescue Chief Herman Brice, who supports taxing homeowners in the two wealthy cities.

“They don’t want to be taxed and they don’t want to participate,” Chief Brice said after the meeting. “They refuted every single benefit. Based on what Boca and Delray said tonight, I don’t see any basis for compromise.”

County Commissioners Mary McCarty, Jeff Koons and Warren Newell promised to take the issue up at their June 21 meeting after failing to reach a consensus on leaving the cities out of the dispatch tax.

“Commonality dispatch saves lives. It’s as simple as that,” said Newell, who would not drop the tax issue.
Koons appeared to support the central dispatch system as well, but did not comment on dropping the tax. McCarty did not linger after the meeting and did not take a position.

Chief Brice, noting that 12 cities were already committed to paying for the dispatch system, told the commissioners and city officials it would be unfair to exempt Boca and Delray. Central dispatch “does avoid confusion and it does provide better service for everyone in the county,” he said.

But Delray and Boca fire officials noted that the tax would be a step toward forcing the cities to participate in the central dispatch, which they consider nothing short of a county takeover of their fire departments.

“I don’t disagree with Chief Brice that central dispatch saves lives,” said Chief Bruce W. Silk of Boca Raton Fire-Rescue. “Our problem is that we already work with the county and a countywide system would degrade our current level of service.

“If a Boca unit is part of a county system, our units could be dispersed to Delray and beyond, making them less available for Boca emergencies,” he said.

Osterholt, the former Broward County manager hired as a consultant for the two cities, said Broward successfully used tax rebate systems for nearly three decades until the year 2000. So it is both legal and easy to exempt two cities from paying a county tax by giving them a rebate, he said.

Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@bocanews.com or 561-893-6427.