City commissioners were less than enthusiastic last week about letting the Jewish Federation build a headquarters on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, saying they didn’t want yet another landowner exempt from property taxes.
The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County’s partner agency, the Jewish Community Center, closed its campus on Military Trail north of Okeechobee Boulevard in 2008 and opened a new one in Palm Beach Gardens. Much of the property became Oxbridge Academy.
The Federation’s corporate headquarters and other programs stayed on Military Trail, but, as part of its deal with Oxbridge, the Federation agreed to look for another site.
The Federation proposes building a 3-story office, 40,000-plus square foot building on the 1.08-acre parcel to host its headquarters and about 70 employees.
The lot is in the northeast corner of a large tract that was once owned by the city and then hosted the West Palm Beach Municipal baseball stadium and the city’s auditorium. In 1997, the city agreed to sell off the auditorium, which became the Christian Convention Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The price tag: $12.5 million.
Opponents sued the city to force a referendum on the sale, which a court later ordered and which passed by a 52-48 margin. Part of the site became a shopping center anchored by a Home Depot. Under a restriction imposed by the city, the future use of the lot in question must be one that is for-profit and would generate property taxes.
“In essence, the city said, ‘You must develop this property (and) put money on the tax roll,’ ” Development Services Director Rick Greene said Oct. 7 at a city commission work session.
Palm Beach County property records value the empty lot, now owned by a Boca Raton investor, at $677,448. Last year, it earned the city $16,490 in taxes.
Greene said the city’s options are to uphold the restriction, waive it or require a payment in lieu of taxes.
“The federation wants a way to stay here” in West Palm Beach, Brian Seymour, a West Palm Beach attorney and Federation board member, said at the commission workshop. “This is the last piece of property basically that remains that would work.”
Any tax payment would be too much and probably would force the Federation to lay off workers, he said.
“At the end of the day, there are people that need to eat and there are people that need clothes and that’s what the business of the Federation is,” Seymour said. “And that’s why the ‘tax exempt’ is there.”
The item will be placed on the agenda for the city commission meeting Oct. 28. Commissioners Keith James and Ike Robinson said they were inclined to keep the restriction, while Sylvia Moffett said she leaned toward waiving it. Kimberly Mitchell and Shanon Materio were not at the workshop.
“Let’s see what happens a year from now, a couple of years from now,” James said. “I would predict that there probably will be quite a bit of interest in this and that we could get a commercially viable purchaser there.”
Robinson, who complained previously about the city’s many property tax exemptions, noted that further down the workshop’s agenda was a discussion of the city’s struggles to maintain green spaces, and that he wasn’t keen on providing yet another tax break, no matter how worthy.
But Moffett said the commission should consider the charitable work done by the commission “compared to a tire store.”
“This is a tough one,” Mayor Jeri Muoio said. “I would like a portion of the Jewish Federation to stay in West Palm Beach.”