Village Council members argued over each other and lobbed criticisms Tuesday night during an especially contentious budget hearing.
A particular sticking point: Plans to redevelop the Lake Wellington waterfront space that could include tearing down the aging Lake Wellington Professional Centre. The council debated the necessity of setting aside $1.2 million to spend on planning the waterfront redevelopment. That money also could be used to demolish the 35-year-old office building, an issue that drew several comments from tenants who say tearing down the building would drive more than 130 businesses from the village.
After a nearly two-hour discussion, the council voted 4-1, with Mayor Anne Gerwig dissenting, to move the budget forward with a 2.50 property tax rate after suggesting several items be deleted — while keeping the controversial waterfront-planning cash. The next budget hearing is 7 p.m. Sept. 25.
The Palm Beach Post first reported in April on the village’s plans to redevelop the Lake Wellington waterfront area behind Wellington’s community center and aquatics complex.
A concept for the first phase — which officials have said is subject to change pending public input — includes tearing down the Lake Wellington Professional Centre to make space for more parking and a new rowing center. The existing rowing center could be torn down to create green space, renderings show.
This first phase would cost about $8 million, village estimates show. A larger-scale, 10-year plan to redevelop the entire site, including the Wellington Aquatics Complex, could cost about $25 million, Finance Director Tanya Quickel said.
The money in the coming year’s budget would cover hiring a consultant to run public-input sessions, Village Manager Paul Schofield said.
During public comment, several tenants said they would not support tearing down the professional center without a more concrete plan in place and public input.
“This is not something we’re just going to decide on a whim,” Vice Mayor Michael Drahos said, adding that he sympathized with businesses facing the prospect of having to find new space. He and Councilman Michael Napoleone said they individually have spoken with investors about bringing new executive offices here.
When a previous Village Council voted to buy the Professional Centre in 2013, it was investing in the land, not the building, Drahos said. The building makes about $200,000 in profit a year, Quickel said.
The Professional Centre is home to 60 virtual tenants and 74 physical tenants, she said. The virtual tenants are able to use the building’s receptionist and conference rooms, and each has an on-site mailbox. The facility needs about $1.8 million in work, including a new roof, fire sprinklers, electrical system upgrades and an “interior refresh,” Quickel said.
Gerwig argued that tearing down the building without a solid plan would not be fiscally responsible. Before setting aside any money for permitting or demolition, she wants to have public-input meetings. “If we want to do something for our community that makes it a more lively, long-term, sustainable community, this is not it,” she said.
As Councilman John McGovern tried to steer the discussion back to the overall budget and the proposed property tax rate, Gerwig said she would prefer to see items in the budget that improve community safety, she said.
“If I’m going to raise the budget from 2.43 (current property tax rate), it has to be ways that are going to meet the needs of the residents, not this other stuff that we’re not sure of yet,” Gerwig said.
She pointed to her experience as a surveyor and land planner. “I’m the only person, you guys, as much as you bring to the table, you don’t bring the same thing that I bring,” Gerwig said. “You don’t. And I think the discussion has to be, what are we looking to add here.”
McGovern took issue with Gerwig’s comment about experience. “Every one of us is active in the community, every one of us has been elected, every one of us has a role to play,” he said. “And our votes are equal and deserve equal credence, and I think that anything that says that isn’t true is false.”
“Well, we’re going to disagree on that one too, because I have sat through election cycles and I have knocked on doors. Two of you sitting here at this council were appointed outright at least in the beginning,” Gerwig said, referring to McGovern and Councilwoman Tanya Siskind, both of whom initially were chosen to fill vacant council seats. Each since has been elected.
“That doesn’t make your vote any more credible than the rest of ours,” McGovern said over her.
Drahos disagreed with Gerwig, who said she campaigned for him. “I never asked anybody to campaign for me,” he said. “I campaigned for myself.”
“We’re getting far afield,” Napoleone said.
“And we can get as far afield as you like,” Gerwig said. “I am the chair of this board and I will just have one more thing to say and then you can go ahead and say whatever you want. I’m telling you that I have worked very hard for this position, and I am in connection with my community, and I don’t see that in this plan. That’s all.
“And that’s not personal about any of you. But you are attorneys, you are a PTA mom, this is out of your realm,” Gerwig continued, referring to lawyers Drahos, McGovern and Napoleone and Siskind, who has been active in Wellington’s educational community for more than a decade.
“I think you have just insulted these residents, these voters and each one of us and it is out of line,” McGovern said.
Drahos agreed. “Madam Mayor, I mean, nobody’s gotten personal here but you,” he said. “And it’s unfortunate, and I really don’t want to go down that road. There’s no need for us to talk about our qualifications. I think all of us are equally qualified and all of us love our community very much.”
Gerwig said she is disappointed the council continues to “microplan,” when it could be master-planning by including discussion about the village’s K-Park property and a 10-acre site Wellington owns near the Mall at Wellington Green. “No one wants to have a conversation about investing in the business community by adding a 400-seat banquet space,” she said. “… We’ve got to find that thing that we’re investing in that’s bringing business to the community and adding value.”
The banquet hall suggestion is “a cover for a performing arts center,” McGovern said, “Which I want to be very clear, I do not think that is financially sustainable in this community.”
“It’s not a cover, sir, it’s an ancillary use,” Gerwig said.
Later in the meeting, Gerwig returned to the cultural arts center concept. “If we want to get personal about it, I’ve had a lot of input from the residents about an economic driver for this community, and Councilman McGovern downplays it as some kind of cover project,” she said. “But it’s truly not because other communities are doing this sort of thing and they’re seeing it change the nature of their community.”
Gerwig long has been a proponent of bringing some sort of performing arts space to the village that could charge admission for performances while hosting business events during the day and in the off-season. “Arts are something that attract intelligent people,” she said. “… It’s the kind of investment that can change your community in the long-term, and it’s not been something that we’re willing to vision together. It’s something that only I talk about. So, I can’t vision by myself.”
Proposed 2018-19 budget
First vote: 4-1 to approve, with Mayor Anne Gerwig dissenting
Second vote: 7 p.m. Sept. 25 at Village Hall, 12300 Forest Hill Blvd.
Proposed tax rate: 2.50
Current tax rate: 2.43
Total budget: About $97 million, $13 million less than this year
Capital projects include:
- Forest Hill Boulevard and C-8 Canal work: $1.7 million
- New fields and facilities at Greenbriar Park: $7.9 million, including about $2.5 million rolled over from this year’s budget
- Multiuse path and bike lane expansion: $1.2 million
- Lake Wellington waterfront planning, permitting and demolition: $1.2 million