NEW: Road conditions shape Loxahatchee Groves town council race

12:00 a.m. Saturday, March 3, 2018 Local
Kristen M. Clark
Three candidates are vying for a seat on Loxahatchee Groves’ town council. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)

The condition of town roads is taking center stage as three candidates vie for a seat on the Loxahatchee Groves town council.

In the March 13 election, Councilman Ron Jarriel, 66, will face a pair of political newcomers challenging him for Seat 1 on the council: 60-year-old Phillis Maniglia and 21-year-old Neil O’Neal III.

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Seat 3 on the council, held by Councilman Ryan Liang, also was up for election. But Liang declined to run again, and Realtor Joyce Batcheler was elected unopposed.

Care for the town’s network of dirt roads long has been an issue, with the topic appearing on nearly every town council agenda since the governing body held its first meeting in 2007. It was after Hurricane Irma, however, that the issue came to a head.

About two weeks after Irma passed through, the town assumed maintenance responsibility for 16 miles of dirt roads from the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District. Those roads already were in rough shape, council members later said. The district had graded them regularly for years, but that work was done without replacing layers of base rock that were sheared away.

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Irma’s winds and rain wreaked havoc on the roads, with large pits forming on some. In the months since, the town has worked to balance the cost of hurricane-debris cleanup with repairing and maintaining the entire network of town roads, including those that are paved using a composite called open-graded emulsified mix, or OGEM.

Jarriel, who is running for his fourth term on the council, said he would like to exhaust the town’s reserves before raising taxes or approving a special assessment on residents. All three candidates pointed to a $5 million bond the town is in the process of obtaining. Jarriel said Town Manager Bill Underwood hopes to have that in hand by the end of the year.

“Five million dollars can go a long ways when it comes to roads,” Jarriel said.

He called current road conditions “deplorable,” and said he voted against the town taking over the roads from the Water Control District because there was no maintenance plan in place. “We had to have a plan to give those residents the same service they were getting from the district,” he said.

The state of the town’s roads is “unforgiveable,” Maniglia said. “Our town is in the worst condition ever,” she added. “We don’t even have it in our budget to be able to fix those roads.”

As a Realtor who represents numerous properties in the town, Manigilia said she has seen deals go sideways when a prospective buyer has to bounce down a washboard road. “Things have been going really well,” she said. “We were discovered a few years ago by the equestrian community. These are people from all over the U.S. and the world coming here to build their barns.

“For this council to drop the ball on our roads during the winter season was damaging,” she said.

In addition to the bond for road work, Maniglia said she also believes an assessment could help pay for the much-needed work.

“We have to acquire more funding,” O’Neal said, adding that could be through an assessment or raising the town’s property tax rate.

Adding new road rock could cost the town about $2 million, he said, citing estimates from his discussions with Underwood. The district’s grading practices “eroded away” the roads, leaving the town in a bind, O’Neal said.

“These roads did not get this way overnight,” he said.

All three candidates mentioned possible support for the town to assume control of the Water Control District. A bill moving through the Florida Legislature, HB 1093, would make the district dependent on the town, with the town council assuming the board of directors role. The House approved the bill on a 109-3 vote last week. If the bill is signed by Gov. Rick Scott, the decision will go to Loxahatchee Groves voters in the fall.

Jarriel said he does not support making the district dependent on the town, but if voters give the OK to make the district dependent on the town, the town should use the money it previously sent to the district to hire personnel and lease equipment to perform road maintenance themselves. Currently, the town contracts that work with MJC Land Development.

He told a crowd at a Loxahatchee Groves Landowners Association candidates forum last week that in the past six months he has changed his opinion on the move, and he will know by the vote in October whether or not he will support it.

Maniglia said she supports making the district dependent because it would bring potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars back to town coffers — money that could be spent elsewhere.

O’Neal said the district should become dependent and then be converted into a public works department for the town, which could handle road grading.