Old School Square May Pursue Its “Old Job” & Budget Time in Boca

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old school square
The Pavilion at Old School Square

The Old School Square for the Arts executive committee meets today. Members face big decisions.

First is whether the group intends to compete for the job that it just lost. Last month, Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson terminated the lease that Old School Square for the Arts has had since 1989 to operate and manage the properties on Swinton Avenue.

The termination takes effect in February. But in his Aug. 27 commission newsletter City Manager Terrence Moore said Old School Square for the Arts could apply with other candidates as part of the “selection process” to decide who will run Delray Beach’s arts and civic complex that includes the Crest Theater, the Cornell Museum and the Pavilion.

“It’s not my sole decision,” said Chairwoman Emelie Konopka when we spoke on Friday. After today’s executive committee meeting, the full board meets next Tuesday.

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Konopka and others have expressed frustration at what they consider lack of information from the city. The only contact since the Aug. 10 vote to terminate the lease—with no public notice that the vote would happen— has been a meeting between Moore and City Attorney Lynn Gelin and Marko Cerenko, Old School Square’s attorney. Moore and Gelin confirmed to Cerenko that the termination was final but that Old School Square could apply to be, essentially, rehired.

“There has been no appetite,” Konopka said, “on (the city’s) part for a meeting” to discuss the many issues, such as who owns what. Old School Square believes that it owns perhaps $2 million worth of equipment— purchased with private donations—that happens to be inside city property. Some supporters believe that the group owns the marketing software and even the name Old School Square.

“We wanted that dialogue,” Konopka said. On Monday, Moore told me that he would perform “an inventory exercise” as soon as this week to conclude “who owns what.” Moore said, “Clarity will be achieved.”

The decision by Petrolia, Casale and Johnson continues to provoke strong criticism. When the commission finally allowed public comment, not one speaker backed the decision. Petrolia responded that they had heard privately from many residents who supported the termination.

Konopka said Old School Square already is feeling the effects of the decision. Shows have been cancelled, either by Old School Square or the performers, because ticket sales in some cases “were less than 30 percent.”

Is that because of the termination? “Absolutely,” Konopka said. “When people believe that you’re going out of business, customer confidence drops.” Konopa added, “People are saying, ‘Didn’t Old School Square close?’ We didn’t sell a single ticket in the last two weeks.”

delray cra

Konopa buttressed Old School Square’s contention that the city ambushed the group. “No one ever contacted us for a meeting,” she said, about the compliance issues that Petrolia, Casale and Johnson cited. Old School Square also contests the new report by Internal Auditor Julia Davidyan that the group failed to submit multiple documents.

In mid-summer, when the campaign against Old School Square had been building, then-Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez invited Konopa to a Zoom meeting, Konopka said, to discuss “Old School Square renovations.” That is the work at Crest Theater that the commission discussed at its July 10 meeting. Despite complaints by some members, the commission let the work—also privately financed—continue. After the lease termination, the city stopped the work.

One could argue that, if Old School Square participates in the selection process and is chosen, the lease termination motivated the group to improve its management. But Petrolia, Casale and Johnson could have put Old School Square on a 180-day probationary period to achieve the same result without disrupting programming as we approach high season.

What happened with Old School Square reminds me of what happened last year with former City Manager George Gretsas. Based on a report that hadn’t become public—and which also involved Davidyan—Petrolia, Casale and Johnson suspended Gretsas and served notice that they intended to fire him. The vote also was not advertised.

For Old School Square, the wider question is where the group goes from here. “It’s first to define the mission,” Konopka said. “Our goal is to bring the arts to the public. How do we have viability, with or without buildings and the city?”

Old School Square has filed its intent to sue, but there is no litigation yet. Certainly Old School Square and the city agree on very little these days.

Beach and Parks District may hike taxes

At its final budget hearing next week, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Parks District likely will raise the agency’s property tax rate.

Even without a rate increase, most property owners in the city and the district—areas between Boca Raton’s western boundary and the Florida Turnpike—would pay more because of rising values. If the rate rises from 88 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to the proposed $1.05, the owner of a home assessed at $400,000 would pay an additional $68.

The district has only two full-time employees. Most of its budget goes to reimburse the city for park and beach projects that the agencies carry out together. So the district’s budget depends largely on city financial projections. Executive Director Briann Harms said the district is “working with city staff to review operations of all facilities and update as needed.”

The district’s two major capital projects will be the former Ocean Breeze golf course ($5 million) and pickleball courts at Patch Reef Park ($3 million.) The district board must decide what to do with Ocean Breeze. Golf remains a possibility, despite the city’s new course at Boca Country Club.

Also, the district’s tennis facility—separate from the city’s downtown complex—will get lights and resurfaced courts. There also will be a lot of work at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, including the new observation tower.

Boca budget hearing

At Wednesday’s 6 p.m. hearing, Boca Raton also will give final approval to next year’s budget.

As I have reported, the tax rate hardly will change. Bills will rise because of those higher values. Boca Raton is using $7.2 million of American Rescue Plan money to balance the budget. That cushion won’t be available next year if there’s a large budget deficit.

This year, Boca Raton changed the way it deals with non-profit groups seeking money. Previously, representatives would appear at the first budget hearing with their requests and spend five minutes justifying it. Nearly 60 groups ask for money.

This time, the city asked for requests in writing. Non-profits got about $460,000 combined for the current budget and for the previous year. For next year, they want roughly $750,000. Tri-County Humane Society seeks nearly $55,000, up from $20,000. Florence Fuller Child Development Center wants an increase from $50,000 to $75,000.

Before Wednesday’s hearing, council members will submit their preferred amounts. Then, probably starting with Mayor Scott Singer, they will work out the final numbers. The total is likely to be closer to the current amount than the aspirations.

Firearms law challenged  

The Florida Supreme Court will hear the challenge to the law that proscribes fines and even removal from office for city and county officials who pass local restrictions on firearms.

Boca Raton is one of the plaintiffs. The Legislature pre-empted firearms regulation to the state in 1987. In 2011, Tallahassee added those penalties at the request of the National Rifle Association.

The plaintiffs, who filed their challenge after the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, did not contest the 1987 law. They believe that the added penalties are unconstitutional. They won at trial but lost at the 1st District Court of Appeal.

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