Cultural Council proposed public money for an ex-con’s defunct theater

As it pushed for tax subsidies for private museums and theaters, Palm Beach County’s Cultural Council nominated a shuttered Pahokee theater owned by an ex-con to receive more than $1 million in new county sales tax money.

The proposal would have steered the money to controversial Pahokee businessman Emilio Perez, whose lengthy criminal record includes a stint in federal prison in the 1990s for plotting to blow up a business rival’s gas station with dynamite.

The attempt to give money to the dilapidated Prince Theater, which Perez bought in 2010 for $8,500, violated the council’s assurance to the public that only institutions operated by nonprofits or municipal governments would be eligible.

The theater stayed on the list for more than five months despite the council’s assertions that each project had been rigorously vetted.

It was removed in March, when the council rewrote its project list to erase any mention of the theater.

In its place, the $1.4 million would now go to an unspecified “arts education after-school facility” in Pahokee, even though the council’s director told The Palm Beach Post that she doesn’t know how it will be spent.

Despite no public vetting of the projects by government officials, county commissioners and school board members have embraced the council’s proposal, agreeing to commit $121 million to finance 23 private construction projects.

The projects, chosen by the council’s influential board, would get money only if voters agree in November to raise the county’s sales tax by a penny for 10 years, creating a $2.7 billion windfall that also would go to public schools and municipal governments.

To win political support, the council, a publicly subsidized nonprofit, hired several influential lobbyists and enlisted dozens of supporters for a public relations blitz. The council’s plan won support despite objections from several officials that steering money to private organizations would mean less to fix roads and repair schools.

The entire proposed 1-cent sales tax hike is slated for another county commission vote on May 3.

‘Working to be transparent’

This month, council Executive Director Rena Blades assured commissioners that the council had “worked diligently to be transparent, fair and forthcoming with information” and would “continue to be responsible stewards.”

“At every turn, the Cultural Council has worked hard to open its process to the public,” Blades wrote in a letter.

But even as elected leaders endorse the council’s proposal, the nonprofit has refused to answer key questions about its nominated projects, assembled in months of private meetings.

And it has denied The Post’s requests for information it used to choose institutions that would be eligible for a share of the money.

The secrecy surrounding the council’s decisions has heightened the uncertainty about several of the projects, including the initial move to steer money to the Prince Theater while rejecting requests from several established nonprofits.

Among those rejected: the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, a black history museum in Delray Beach; and the Milagro Center, a nonprofit child-care center in Delray Beach that gives an arts education to poor children.

One of nearly two dozen proposed projects, the Prince Theater escaped widespread scrutiny.

County Mayor Mary Lou Berger, who sits on the council’s board and voted as a county commissioner to endorse its plan, said she didn’t know what the Prince Theater was.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Berger, whose former boss, retired County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, is a council lobbyist, said last week. “I can’t comment.”

Violates eligibility rules

The theater’s inclusion violated the council’s own rules for eligibility, which require that the projects be owned or operated by “a nonprofit corporation or municipality.”

In fact, the council told elected officials and the public that all applicants were subjected to a long list of eligibility requirements.

Candidates had to provide “substantiating documentation” that they were either public entities or registered nonprofits, the council claimed in a report presenting its plan.

Applicants were also required to submit legal proof of “unrestricted use of the land and buildings,” the report stated.

Asked how the council’s screening failed to reveal the Prince Theater’s private ownership, Blades declined to comment directly, saying only that the project was initially proposed by Pahokee officials.

“We worked with the city,” Blades said in an email statement. “The city showed interest and recommended the Prince Theater as the possible location.”

An August draft of the list and an official version released in February both included the theater. It was removed only after the council realized it didn’t qualify.

“Between January and March of this year, the council learned that the Prince Theater property was owned by an individual,” Blades said.

She declined to say what scrutiny the Prince Theater received after Pahokee officials recommended it. She also refused to say how the council concluded that the theater, which has an appraised property value of $70,000, should receive more than $1 million in public money for renovations.

County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes Pahokee, said she alerted county officials months ago when she first noticed the Prince Theater among the council’s proposed projects.

But, she said, the theater nonetheless remained on the list “until very recently.”

McKinlay, who opposes including cultural projects in the county’s sales tax plan, said the council’s about-face raised larger questions about its methodology.

“I just think their process, in terms of selecting those projects, has lacked a degree of transparency,” she said. “And I still stand by my words that that money is better suited for infrastructure improvements.”

Blades defended the council’s vetting efforts, saying that the decision to remove the theater underscored the rigor of its criteria. She said that in any event, the ultimate decision about whether to finance the council’s projects rests with county commissioners.

“The fact that the Prince Theater is no longer on the list shows that the process worked,” she said.

Blades would not identify the new recipient of the money and said she did not know what it would be spent on. She said the decision would be made by Pahokee officials. She also declined to say how the sum was arrived at.

“On the final list, the project is an educational center, described by the City of Pahokee, and to our knowledge the specific location may not yet have been identified,” Blades said.

That appears to be news to some top Pahokee city officials. Mayor Keith Babb, elected last month, told The Post last week that he was not aware the city was part of any cultural projects financed by new sales tax revenue.

“We don’t have any direct involvement with it,” he said. “I hadn’t gotten any real detail about that proposal.”

Pahokee’s city manager did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit with ties to Perez, the Prince Theater’s owner, said last week that it still intends to use the $1.4 million for renovations to the theater.

Balanced Living Mentorship, which was incorporated in February by Perez’s wife, Sara, and two associates, said it expects to receive the money to renovate the theater in order to host free activities for children.

“We want to bring in music, dance, things like that,” said Hikeem Banks, the nonprofit’s president and director. “In the Glades, sports is the majority. We want to bring awareness back to the cultural arts.”

Sara Perez said that she and her husband would own the theater but would allow the nonprofit to host activities for children in it.

“It’s always been my vision to do this for the community,” she said.

Pahokee owned the defunct 1940s theater for years but discovered that renovating it would be too costly. Its efforts to find a private individual or group to buy and restore it were unsuccessful.

In 2010, the city sold the theater to Emilio Perez on the condition that he tear it down.

But Perez refused to level it. The city sued him, and in a settlement, city officials agreed to let him keep it so long as he fixed it on his own dime.

While Perez appeared to make some repairs, the theater has never reopened. He could not be reached for comment.

Perez’s lengthy arrest record includes two federal prison stints in the 1990s — once on a firearms conviction and once after being caught on tape buying dynamite in an apparent plot to blow up a rival’s gas station.

Though the council says it no longer knows how the $1.4 million will be spent, Blades said that doing something to boost the Glades area was always key to the council’s efforts.

“The Glades region is a priority for our collective work to bring quality education and economic prosperity to that area,” she said.

Staff writer Jennifer Sorentrue contributed to this story.

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