- By Wayne Washington Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Donald Trump has sued Palm Beach County numerous times. He hasn’t always agreed with tax assessments of his properties here. And residents in the county voted en masse against him in November.
But the part-time Palm Beach resident is president now, and actions taken by his administration could be a boon to the county – or they could block progress in areas where the county can’t succeed without federal help.
Those areas include money for housing assistance, Everglades restoration, upgrades to the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee, trade, immigration and reimbursement for security costs incurred by the county during President Trump’s visits to his Palm Beach mansion, Mar-a-Lago, where he has spent the past two weekends of his presidency.
The county has put together a specific wish list it hopes Congress approves, but other overarching federal priorities could have a broad impact here.
The president has talked of spending a huge amount of money on projects to upgrade airports, seaports, bridges and tunnels, and — if his administration is feeling kindly toward the county — some of that money could be headed here.
Members of the county’s congressional delegation, some of whom have ripped Trump at every turn, can now only hope that his familiarity with the county, his frequent visits to it and his immense power as president will be used to the county’s benefit.
“I think it’s a big question mark,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.
Not only is Trump familiar with the county, but so, too, are his nominees for the U.S. departments of Commerce and Housing and Urban Development.
Like Trump, Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross has a home in Palm Beach. HUD nominee Ben Carson lives in Palm Beach Gardens. If confirmed, both men will control vast bureaucracies with thousands of employees and massive budgets.
Trump didn’t spend much time talking about housing as a candidate, and Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, has no background in the area, either.
But HUD’s actions could have sweeping impact in a county with an urgent need for affordable housing.
A cut in project-based vouchers, for example, could imperil affordable housing projects in the Glades, a poor section of the county that has had a hard time providing safe, clean and affordable housing for its residents.
Project-based vouchers — federal assistance directed to a particular complex so poor residents could be offered lower rents — are a critical component in financing the construction or redevelopment of such complexes.
Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson and Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who have been working to get the frequently cited, dilapidated Grand Lake apartment complex rebuilt, both said they believe a recent deal to sell it fell through because of difficulties in securing federal vouchers.
In addition to providing vouchers, HUD enforces anti-discrimination rules. Carson spoke out against a 2015 rule calling for cities to track and combat patterns of discrimination in housing.
Carson likened the rule to federal school busing orders of the 1960s and 1970s.
“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse,” Carson wrote in an opinion piece.
After his nomination, Carson assured members of Congress that he would not seek large-scale cuts to HUD.
But Democrats remain wary of what a Trump administration will mean for housing.
They criticized the new president’s first executive action, the cancellation of a mortgage-fee reduction that would have given a break to low- and middle-income homeowners.
Under former President Obama, HUD ordered a reduction in the fee collected to support the Federal Housing Administration, which backs mortgages for those with low credit scores and for those who put little down toward buying a home.
FHA-backed loans are frequently used by low- and middle-income home buyers and those who are buying their first home. The fee reduction was expected to save the owner of a $200,000 home about $500 a year.
Trump canceled the fee reduction, which he said would damage the financial stability of the FHA.
While candidate Trump didn’t talk much about housing, he did offer views on Everglades restoration and the various water projects associated with it.
“A Trump administration will also work alongside you to restore and protect the beautiful Everglades, which I just flew over,” he said in October during a campaign stop in Collier County. “I just flew over and let me tell you when you fly over the Everglades and look at those gators and you look at those water moccasins, you say, ‘I’d better have a good helicopter.’”
In June, an algae bloom closed beaches up the Treasure Coast, but it also reached a park on the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach south of Forest Hill Boulevard.
The algae bloom has the full attention of U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Palm City Republican who backed Trump’s candidacy.
“Cleaning our waterways is absolutely critical for our community and will continue to be one of my top priorities in Congress,” he said. “This means we have to work with agencies at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure the resources are there to make it happen.”
Mast said he’s appealed to congressional leaders for support of projects that would clean and protect area waterways.
“I’ve also made this appeal directly to President Trump and will keep the pressure on until the water projects in our community are completed,” Mast said.
In addition to Everglades restoration and protection of the area’s water supply, combating climate change is a major focus for South Florida.
High tides regularly produce flooding in Miami-Dade. Palm Beach County sees the threat of climate change as dire enough to justify the hiring of a climate-change coordinator, Natalie Schneider, who said she’s one of three people in similar positions across South Florida.
Trump, however, has expressed doubts about climate change, whose effects have been acknowledged by scientists throughout the world.
“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” he tweeted in 2012.
He has repeatedly called global warming a “hoax.”
HERBERT HOOVER DIKE REPAIRS
Another area of long-standing concern in Palm Beach County, upgrades to the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee, could also be affected by the Trump administration.
With the possibility of global warming intensifying the power of hurricanes, upgrading and repairing the aging dike takes on greater urgency as a bulwark against catastrophic flooding.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of dike repairs, and its budget is determined by Congress and the president.
McKinlay, whose commission district includes communities along the banks of the lake, said dike repairs are expected to be completed by 2025.
“I don’t see the administration doing anything to delay that,” she said. “Obviously, I’d like to see it expedited, but at least the project remains on track.”
Trump has said he supports spending as much as $1 trillion to improve the nation’s infrastructure. That means potential repairs to roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, seaports and perhaps flood-control systems such as dikes.
“If President Trump lives up to his campaign promises, I am optimistic that Palm Beach County could receive additional appropriations, assuming Congress can pass a budget for needed road and bridge improvements and water projects,” McKinlay said.
Frankel said she’s worried that Congress won’t go along with Trump’s plans on spending unless it is paid for by big cuts to housing, health and arts programs.
“I think it’s very unlikely that the Republican Congress would just approve a big infrastructure program,” she said. “They have a very conservative Congress.”
TRADE AND IMMIGRATION
Already, the president of Mexico has canceled a planned visit to protest Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a border wall between that country and the United States. And Trump on Thursday said he wants to speed up the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has blasted as a sop for Mexico and Canada at the expense of American jobs.
Trade and immigration policy aren’t simply esoteric points of discussion in Palm Beach County.
A 2015 report released by the University of Florida found that Palm Beach County’s agricultural output was worth $1.36 billion, the highest of any county in the state.
Many of those who pick the fruits and vegetables grown here are from Mexico and nations south of there.
Some business experts have expressed concern about what a severe crackdown on illegal immigration could mean for prices. Others have fretted that promising to throw out trade deals might make for good politics but could have negative long-term effects.
“Repealing trade agreements have long been a priority of our agricultural community as well as our local workers, who lose manufacturing job opportunities to areas oversees,” McKinlay said. “There is a fine balance between supporting a global economy for security reasons, supporting our export industries, and supporting our local workers and farmers.”
McKinlay said she’ll be paying close attention to the trade policies of the president and will “hope whatever actions the White House takes are balanced.”
With Trump expected back in town for the third consecutive weekend, the county’s running tab of expenses for assisting with security will run a bit higher.
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has estimated that Trump’s visits for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the past two weekends have cost about $1.5 million in deputies’ overtime. West Palm Beach and Palm Beach police and fire rescue also have been extra expenses but Bradshaw estimates his office accounts for the bulk of the added cost.
Congress has set aside $7 million to reimburse local and state governments for security costs.
Palm Beach County hasn’t gotten any of that money yet, however, and claims for that money outstrip the amount set aside. New York City, where the president also has a residence, has asked for $35 million.
On reimbursements, on spending for upgrades and repairs, on restoring the Everglades, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, said he’s hoping Trump and the people he knows in the county will spur him to do what he can to address its priorities.
“He spends considerable time in Palm Beach County,” Deutch said. “I’m hoping these personal relationships will inform his decision-making on some of these projects. This is where he lives.”