Judge: Deerfield Beach pump maker MWI doesn’t have to pay millions sought by U.S.

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org MWI Headquarters

After a bitter, 16-year fight with the Justice Department, Deerfield Beach pump maker MWI scored a big victory last week with a federal judge’s ruling that the company isn’t liable for any damages for its violations of the False Claims Act.

The reason: The government didn’t lose a penny on tens of millions of dollars in federal loans to Nigeria used to purchase irrigation pumps from MWI.

Attorneys for the Justice Department had at one point sought damages totaling $222.9 million – an amount that would have shut the company down and thrown approximately 130 employees out of work, according to an MWI attorney.

“The ruling is important not just for MWI and the fact that it will enable the company to stay in business and its employees to keep their jobs, but it shows the hubris of the government in pursuing these cases,” said District of Columbia attorney Robert T. Rhoad.

“The government pursued this case for 16 years, devoting an extraordinary amount of resources, when it knew the government hadn’t been harmed by any damages.”

NO DAMAGES, BUT CIVIL PENALTIES

Still, Judge Gladys Kessler of Washington, D.C. said MWI, short for Moving Water Industries, caused other harm and assessed $580,000 in civil penalties against the company. In November, a jury determined MWI had filed 58 false claims in paperwork submitted to secure a series of loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank to finance its 1992 sale of irrigation pumps and other equipment to Nigeria.

“Despite the fraudulent actions taken by MWI to persuade the government to make these loans, they were in fact paid back in full with interest and fees,” Judge Kessler wrote in her 33-page order of February 10. “The government has been made completely whole.”

Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Gage Skidmore

Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Gage Skidmore

The government’s long-running civil action against MWI, one of Broward’s oldest companies founded in 1926 and still run by members of the Eller family, was the focus of media attention last year when former Gov. Jeb Bush was on the government’s witness list. Bush, a former business partner of MWI’s now retired chief executive/president David Eller, traveled to Africa twice while his father was in the White House to promote MWI.

Justice Department lawyers wanted to question Bush about his compensation. Bush, however, was not involved in the deal in question and Judge Kessler excluded him after deciding his testimony would be irrelevant.

Compensation paid by MWI to a Nigerian sales agent, Alhaji Mohammed Indimi, was a focal point of the trial.

The case began in 1998 when a former MWI employee named Robert Purcell filed a whistleblower claim alleging the company paid commissions in excess of 30 percent of the contract price to Indimi.

The total sale price was $82.2 million. The Export-Import Bank loaned Nigeria $74.3 million to finance the deal. Indimi was paid about $25 million.

Purcell, who stands to collect a cut of any damages, asserted that those commissions should have been disclosed on “credit supplier’s certificates” filed by MWI with the Export-Import Bank. The jury ultimately determined MWI did not disclose the commissions.

CRIMINAL PROBE WENT NOWHERE

The Justice Department initially conducted a criminal investigation, but found insufficient evidence to charge MWI or any of its officials with a crime. Instead, in 2002, it intervened on Purcell’s side in his False Claims Act case.

After years of little action, the case went to trial on November 6. The government argued its damages were the full amount of the loan, or $74.3 million. Three weeks later, however, the jury found MWI knowingly made 58 specific false claims and set the government’s damages at $7.5 million.

False Claims Act violators are liable for three times the amount of actual damages, or in this case $22.5 million. But the judge decided that MWI was entitled to an offset of $108 million – or $74.3 million in principal plus $33.7 million in interest and fees – paid to the Export-Import Bank for monies received from Nigeria as repayment of the loans.

“Thus, MWI owes nothing in damages,” Judge Kessler said.

Kessler went on to decide that MWI should pay the maximum civil penalty of $10,000 for each false claim. She justified that after finding evidence that then MWI President David Eller “had actual knowledge” that Indimi’s commissions “should have been disclosed.”

While Eller repeatedly told the court that MWI “would never have done anything wrong,” MWI employees testified that “Eller personally approved every commission MWI paid, including Indimi’s…Moreover, Eller testified that MWI never paid any other agent on any other combined project a total commission of more than $5 million,” the judge’s order says.

The judge also quoted the testimony of Juan Ponce, an MWI vice president of international sales, whom she called “a credible witness,” as evidence that MWI “deliberately withheld information about Indimi’s commissions from Ex-Im in order to acquire financing.”

“We knew that we were violating…the rules. We just hoped that we would never get caught,” Ponce said.

Kessler observed, “The harm to the government was more than monetary – it went to the integrity and purposes of the Ex-Im’s programmatic goals. Given that approximately a third of the total loan amount went to a single Nigerian individual, the goal of the Ex-Im to finance loans that primarily benefit U.S. exporters and workers was not achieved.”

Florida ethics bill: Lobbyists at independent taxing districts must register, disclose

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org floridaseal

A government ethics bill introduced in the Florida Senate would for the first time require lobbyists before many large independent special districts to register and disclose their clients, areas of interest and general compensation.

If enacted, the sweeping new registration requirements would apply to every independent special district across Florida that levies property taxes – from water management and hospital districts to children’s services councils and improvement districts.

Florida has 136 independent districts, many run by unelected boards that impose ad valorem taxes on homeowners and businesses, according to data from the Department of Revenue. Not all exercise that power, but in 2011 those that did levied more than $1.82 billion in property taxes.

The three independent special districts that collect the most property tax dollars are the South Florida Water Management District, North Broward Hospital District and the Health Care District of Palm Beach.

Senate Bill 846, filed last week by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, was filed less than a month after BrowardBulldog.org reported how Florida independent special districts that raise and spend billions of dollars in public funds every year do not require lobbyists to register or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.

The bill seeks to impose on independent special districts the same registration and reporting requirements now faced by lobbyists at the Executive Branch. Those requirements include annual registration before lobbying can commence, the filing of quarterly compensation reports and a ban on expenditures.

Latvala’s committee has scheduled the bill for an initial hearing on Feb. 17.

“Generally, it would be fair to characterize Integrity Florida’s first look at Senate Bill 846 as containing several solutions that would strengthen ethics laws in Florida,” said Integrity Florida’s executive director, Dan Krassner. “We look forward to hearing more about it at the hearing.”

In addition to expanding Florida’s lobbying regulations, the bill would also:

  • Require elected municipal officers across the state to participate in annual ethics training and certify to that participation on their annual financial disclosure forms.
  • Apply Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees regarding gifts and conflicts of interest to officials and members of the boards of Enterprise Florida, Space Florida, the Florida Development Finance Corp. and the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corp.
  • Establish revolving door prohibitions that would bar departing public officials at those entities, and Citizens Property Insurance Corp., from returning to lobby within two years.
  • Authorize Florida’s Commission on Ethics to initiate investigations and public hearings regarding any failures to file a full annual financial disclosure form. If violations are found to be “willful,” the commission would have to recommend an official’s removal from public office.
  • Toughen the collection of unpaid ethics fines. Government employers would be authorized to withhold the entire amount of an ethics fine, plus related costs, from a violator’s paycheck, unless hardship could be proven. The ethics commission would be allowed to seek wage garnishment from private employers, and refer unpaid fines to a collection agency.

The bill has the support of Senate President Don Gaetz. If passed and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, it would take effect July 1.

The measure marks a second round for ethics reform that began last year. That legislation gave the ethics commission the power to investigate complaints referred by law enforcement and the governor, and allowed public officials to put their personal assets into what the law calls “blind trusts” to avoid conflicts of interest.

Florida’s independent special districts provide dozens of specialized governmental services such as ports, airports, mosquito control, community development, water management and public hospitals. They outnumber Florida’s counties, cities, towns and villages by more than two to one, yet operate largely in the shadow of their better-known municipal counterparts.

In all, there are nearly 1,000 independent special districts in Florida. Collectively, they spend in excess of $10 billion every year. Many, however, are so small they never encounter a lobbyist seeking to influence a contract or policy.

Under Latvala’s 26-page bill, lobbyist regulation requirements would be confined to independent taxing districts. Hundreds of small districts, many with budgets of less than $10 million a year, that use bonds or assessments to raise revenues won’t be included in the new rules.

Some big budget operations are also are not covered by Latvala’s bill. For example, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the independent special district that runs Tampa International Airport, also does not levy ad valorem taxes.

 

Ex-U.S. Rep. Deutsch stirs the pot in Hollywood; New school plans upset neighbors

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Ex-Congressman Peter Deutsch

Ex-Congressman Peter Deutsch

Five weeks after receiving approval for a middle-senior high school in Hollywood, Ben Gamla charter school officials are exploring “substantive” changes to the project, sparking renewed controversy.

Officials for area civic and residential groups who oppose the project say they are stunned that the school wants to add another floor so soon after the city Planning and Development Board ‘s Dec. 19 approval of a zoning exception allowing a two-story, 34,000 square foot facility for 600 students on Van Buren Street near City Hall.

The proposed changes, opponents say, demonstrate that Ben Gamla officials are not satisfied with the recent agreement and now want a bigger impact in the area. They want city officials to hold the school to the recently approved agreement.

“I can’t believe that in a little over a month he’s back,” said Nancy Fowler, secretary for the North Central Hollywood Civic Association, referring to school founder and former U.S. Representative Peter Deutsch.

“He’s got chutzpah,” Fowler said. “Now he’s come back to take green space on the roof to make a third story. Once you build it can be converted later.”

“If they enclose the third floor they can redo it [later] for classes,” added Shirley Stealey, secretary-treasurer for the Highland Gardens Civic Association. “We are concerned and upset.”

City Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the area and opposed the project, said, “I’m not surprised; they want more.”

Hernandez and unhappy neighborhood groups fought the project saying, among other things, that traffic is already congested in the area due to the existing Ben Gamla K-8 school, across from the proposed new school.

Word of the possible change in plans spread after a Jan. 28 meeting between Deutsch and his lawyer, former Hollywood City Attorney Alan Koslow, with city planning officials.

City spokeswoman Raelin Storey said Ben Gamla officials had asked for the meeting to discuss the project.

The Ben Gamla middle-high school project as approved with green space on the roof. New plans would replace the green space

The Ben Gamla middle-high school project as approved with green space on the roof. New plans would replace the green space

“We didn’t expect these types of changes,” she said.

Deutsch and Koslow informed the city the school was exploring enclosing the third floor rooftop – designed previously as green space — for gymnasium complex, and proposed to use a lot to the south of the building site for additional parking.

These are “substantive changes” that would require additional approval by the planning board, Storey said. The board’s previous approval included 29 conditions, most dealing with traffic, the school agreed to implement in order to gain the zoning exception.

Ben Gamla did not present a formal application regarding the changes, but the day after the meeting conceptual renderings for the third floor enclosure – a main gymnasium, a second smaller gym, a weightlifting area, and locker rooms – were delivered to the city, Storey said.

The top floor addition would be approximately 15,000 square feet, bringing the size of the entire structure to around 49,000 square feet. That’s about the same size of Ben Gamla’s initial plan for a school to accommodate 1,050 students.

City planning director Jaye Epstein did not return a call seeking comment.

Deutsch, an expatriate now living in Israel, and Koslow did not respond to requests for comment. City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark also did not return calls for comment.

Residents were critical of the city amid the renewed flap about the project, which is a partnership between Ben Gamla and the Doral Academy, a Miami-Dade based charter school in Doral.

Fowler, of the North Central Hollywood Civic Association, called the city’s planning and development process “favorable to development.”

Helen Chervin, of United Neighbors Civic Association of South Hollywood, said the city’s interests in a project of this magnitude and controversy should not be represented principally by the planning department.

“ The city manager (Swanson-Rivenbark) should be handling this,” said Chervin, who predicted Ben Gamla will likely get “what it wants.”

Hollywood’s planning process for approving zoning exceptions does not directly involve city commissioners. For example, Ben Gamla’s exception was approved by the planning board on Dec. 19, but wasn’t reviewed later by the city commission because only one commissioner, Hernandez, sought a review. Three commissioners must request a review.

 

Broward commissioners tell Henry to come up with a plan for video-on-demand of meetings

 

UPDATE: FEB. 5 – The Broward County Commission has directed the county administrator to prepare a cost analysis and implementation plan to create an on-line, video archive of commission meetings.

Commissioner Lois Wexler asked her fellow commissioners to act after County Administrator Bertha Henry failed to present her own plan, which Wexler asked for last month. Wexler originally asked Henry to study the issue on Oct. 8, with a Dec. 15 due date, records show.

Wexler doesn’t know why the county administrator did not follow through. “There may be an inherent resistance…to make this type of…meeting information immediately accessible to the public,” Wexler said in an interview Wednesday.

The resolution, adopted unanimously on Tuesday, calls for the plan be submitted to the commission within 60 days. Wexler said she will take the matter to the commission again if Henry fails to meet that deadline.

Wexler described the video on-demand issue as “small potatoes” compared to most matters the commissioners’ tackle. Video on-demand, however, “is a signal to the public that we are accessible and hiding nothing,” she said.

While frustrated by what she believes is Henry’s foot dragging, Wexler continues to support Henry as the county administrator. “The majority of my colleagues are very fond of her,” Wexler said. “I like Bertha very much… (Her) contract is solid…(But) I’m disappointed in the lack of leadership (on this issue).”

BrowardBulldog.org reported in October that Broward is the only county in Southeast Florida and the only major local government in Broward County that does not archive its recorded commission meetings for later on-demand viewing by the public. – William Hladky

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

The Broward County Commission. Lois Wexler is second from right. Chip LaMarca is at the far left.

The Broward County Commission. Lois Wexler is second from right. Chip LaMarca is at the far left.

Jan. 13 – Frustrated with what she perceives to be foot-dragging, Broward County Commissioner Lois Wexler has told County Administrator Bertha Henry to present a plan soon on how to make video recordings of prior commission meetings available to the public on demand through the county’s web site.

Wexler said in an interview that she told Henry last week that if Henry fails to present a plan in a couple of weeks, Wexler would bypass her and bring the issue directly to her fellow commissioners for discussion and action.

Wexler’s frustration boiled after last Tuesday’s commission meeting when video-on-demand was unexpectedly and briefly discussed following a staff presentation about a new, web-based tool called Civic Engagement intended to promote public participation. Video on demand of commission meetings was not part of Civic Engagement.

Commissioner Chip LaMarca said he had received “some calls and requests” asking about archiving videos of commission meetings on the county’s web site for on-demand use.

Wexler, too, expressed support for such a system. “It is something I’ve been following up the last…three months,” Wexler told the commission. “We are one of the last counties (or) cities in Broward to be able to go to our web site (to get on demand meeting videos).”

She reminded Henry she previously requested a feasibility study “and I’m still waiting for some kind of response.”

County Administrator Bertha Henry

County Administrator Bertha Henry

Records show Wexler asked Henry to study the issue on Oct. 8. Although the “due date” was Dec. 15, the study had yet to be submitted.

Henry told the commission that “at some point we will bring back to you a plan for that but I really wanted to get (Civic Engagement and other) initiatives off our plate.” Henry added that archiving on-line commission meetings would “take a lot of resources” and would require ongoing staff resources.

After the commission meeting, Henry met with Wexler in the commissioner’s office. There, Wexler told Henry what she wanted.

BrowardBulldog.org reported in October that Broward is the only county in Southeast Florida and the only major local government in Broward County that does not archive its recorded commission meetings for later on-demand viewing by the public.

Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, the Broward School Board, and 18 of 31 Broward cities – including Fort Lauderdale – provide on demand video or audio web viewing. Only Broward’s smaller municipalities lack this service. More than 85 percent of Broward’s population resides in cities that offer this on demand web service of commission or council meetings.

“I know when government drags its feet,” Wexler said in an interview. “I’m going to give it a couple of weeks and if (Henry’s proposal is not forthcoming) I’m going to put an agenda item on the dais…There is no reason why we can’t do it…This is something I really would like to see for transparency.”

Five commissioners, including LaMarca and Wexler, have indicated they support archiving videos of commission meetings and allowing on-demand web access.

In an interview, Commissioner Martin David Kiar said, “A lot of people are not at home at 10 a.m (when meetings start).…I really believe it is better for the public…to view it online any time they want.”

Commissioner Tim Ryan said, “I’m with Wexler to get it done.”

John Beckford, chief of staff to Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness, told a reporter his boss supports video on demand. “It is safe to say if the video on demand can be implemented at a reasonable cost, it is something the county should provide,” Beckford said.

LaMarca said he does not know why a county as large as Broward, with a $4 billion budget, “doesn’t have on demand TV…It is something we should be working on,” he said.

Commissioners Kristin Jacobs, Stacy Ritter and Sue Gunzberger and county Mayor Barbara Sharief did not respond to requests for comment. Ritter’s office said she was out-of-town.

Wexler dismissed the notion that setting up video on demand would be too costly.

BrowardBulldog.org reported in October that Fort Lauderdale pays Granicus, a California corporation, $2,290 a month to operate the city’s online video system. Granicus started managing the city’s system in 2012. The city’s startup cost with Granicus was $27,825.

The Broward School Board’s on-demand video system cost $12,485 to operate this year.

Henry told the commission that video copies of commission meetings are available. “We can provide it, at any time.”

Those who want a video copy of a Broward County Commission meeting must file a public records request. A DVD copy can be retrieved at county hall in downtown Fort Lauderdale or mailed. The cost is $8, plus postage if mailed.

The Broward County Commission broadcasts live regular meeting and public hearings on its web page and on cable television. The meetings are re-webcast and most of the time re-broadcast on cable once at 5:30 p.m. the Friday following the meetings.

Administrator Henry did not respond to a request for comment.

As Broward commission races take shape, LaMarca, Keechl fear nasty re-run

By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward Commissioner Chip LaMarca, left, and challenger Ken Keechl

Broward Commissioner Chip LaMarca, left, and challenger Ken Keechl

Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca and former Commissioner Ken Keechl approach their upcoming race for the commission like a child approaches the first day of school — with anxiety and trepidation.

Both fear a re-run of their slash-and-burn campaign of four years ago when the upstart LaMarca, a Republican, toppled Keechl, a Democrat, from his District 4 commission seat. Now Keechl wants the seat back.

The two spent a combined $763,106 during the 2010 campaign as they tried to drown their opponent in a flood of negative ads. A third candidate, Chris Chiari, spent roughly $65,000, mostly his own money and was not considered by either LaMarca or Keechl a serious challenger.

LaMarca blasted Keechl in a mailed ad emblazoned with a newspaper headline reading: “FBI Arrests Broward County Public Officials.” Keechl was attacked for his role as a “Ponzi scheme attorney” for having a client who was later found to be operating a fraud.

Keechl branded LaMarca a “criminal” for his drunk driving arrest in college and for being the target of an investigation into a political complaint by the State Attorney’s Office while he was a Lighthouse Point city commissioner. The probe ended without charges.

“I don’t want it to happen again. It wasn’t right. I feel sorry for my wife. She didn’t like the person they painted me to be,” LaMarca said.

“I anticipate he will come after me,” Keechl said. “He has surrounded himself with people who play hardball politics, people who believe politics is a contact sport.”

NEGATIVE ADS EXPECTED

Negative advertising could be expected in races like the county commission, according to Jim Kane, an adjunct political science professor at the University of Florida who has both held office and worked as a lobbyist in Broward during the past four decades.

“They are used because they work, especially in down-ballot races like county commission where many voters have little knowledge of the candidates. They are a way to define a candidate before the voter has any way to define the candidate themselves,” said Kane, a contributor to Browardbeat.com, a political website owned by the author of this story.

On Tuesday, a third candidate entered the District 4 race. Ben Lap is best known as a Democratic fundraiser, but neither LaMarca nor Keechl consider him a major factor at this point.

As of Dec. 31, 2013, incumbent LaMarca had more than triple the money to run ads than challenger Keechl. Including personal loans and in-kind contributions, LaMarca had $131,343 compared to $41,773 for Keechl.

That’s a stark reversal from the race four years ago when Keechl was the incumbent. He raised $614,801 that year, compared to LaMarca’s $148,305.

“Incumbents get more money because they have a vote on the commission,” Kane said.

Keechl isn’t worried about lagging in contributions.

“I am fortunate that I can always put in my own money,” he said.

Keechl contributed roughly $180,000 to his victorious commission campaign in 2006, when he was the challenger. He spent only $500 of his own money in 2010, when he was an incumbent. For an open seat in 2012 in a different commission district, Keechl spent about $1,500 of his own money on a losing campaign in a race where there was no incumbent.

“An incumbent always has access to a lot more money. I will have six figures to spend in this race and will be competitive,” Keechl said.

KEECHL AND BAIL BOND INDUSTRY

While most of those doing business with the county and their lobbyists are funneling money to incumbent LaMarca, Keechl is getting help from one special interest – the bail bonds industry.

Keechl’s connections include Wayne Spath, the president of Brandy Bail Bonds in downtown Fort Lauderdale and a long-time leader in Broward’s bail bonds industry.

Wayne Spath   Photo: brandybailbonds.com

Wayne Spath
Photo: brandybailbonds.com

The bail bonds industry has been a major supporter of Keechl since January 2009, when he backed a move by the County Commission that curtailed the county’s pre-trial release program.

Although the vote was 7-2, Keechl was an influential voice on the subject because he is an attorney and because of his membership on the Broward Public Safety Coordinating Council. The result of cutting back the county’s pre-trial release program meant a larger number of defendants are held in jail to await trial and must use bail bonds to be released.

Spath’s $500 donation was the first contribution to Keechl’s current campaign. Spath also held a fundraiser for Keechl in September.

In an e-mailed invitation addressed “Dear Colleague,” Spath wrote members of the bail bond industry to say, “I had the opportunity of working with Ken on the Public Safety Coordinating Council on jail overcrowding along with other issues. Ken understands the criminal justice system and we need your help in order to get Ken elected on the Broward County Commission.”

In an interview, Spath denied his support for Keechl hinged on his past vote, although he said he had a problem with the way the pre-trial detention program was being operated before it was changed by the County Commission with the help of Keechl.

“People were getting out (of jail) who had no business getting out,” Spath said.

Keechl reported $7,225 in contributions the day after the fundraiser. To date, he has received $2,100 from contributors who identify themselves as part of the bail bonds industry.

Keechl described the bail bonds industry as “friends,” but LaMarca has another take on the contributions.

“He supported an issue that the bail bondsmen wanted,” LaMarca said. “That is the only reason they have supported him now.”

LAMARCA AND BUSINESS LOBBYISTS

LaMarca refused to comment on his own contributors, who include dozens of people who do business at the county. They include lobbyists Stephanie Toothaker, Robert Lochrie III and John Milledge; groups like the Broward Builders Political Action Committee; and companies like Weekley Asphalt.

As if to highlight that contributions to the GOP commissioner are about business rather than partisan politics, several of his contributions come from lobbyists with weighty Democratic credentials – former College Democrats of America national president Bernie Friedman and former Broward Democratic Chair George Platt.

Lobbyists George Platt, left, and Bernie Friedman

Lobbyists George Platt, left, and Bernie Friedman

Besides District 4, three other seats on the county commission are also being contested this year.

The qualifying period for candidates in each of those contests is from noon June 16 to noon June 20.

District 4, which was redrawn since the 2010 election when LaMarca won, contains roughly 8 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans in the district. The Democratic majority offsets the removal from the district of Wilton Manors, home to many gays, which could have hurt the openly-gay Keechl.

Keechl lives in Wilton Manors, but said he’s planning to move to a new location within District 4’s new boundaries.

It may appear that Democrat Keechl has a big advantage, but that’s not necessarily the way it will work out. Democrats tend to vote in lower numbers than Republicans.

Political science studies have “shown that Republicans are more likely to turn out and are more likely to stick with their party’s nominee, especially in down-ballot races where they know little else about the candidate other than the party label,” said Kane, the University of Florida professor. “Any down-ballot race where the advantage for Democrats is less than 10 percent, generally speaking, is competitive.”

BROWARD OVERWHELMINGLY DEMOCRATIC

 

Kane’s analysis reflects why the District 4 race, where Democrats have less of an advantage than in any of the eight other Broward commission districts, is shaping up to be the only real contest in the Nov. 4 general election. The reason: the county is so overwhelmingly Democratic that District 4 in northeastern Broward is the only place where there are enough Republicans in upper-income neighborhoods along the beachfront to comprise a voting bloc.

In contrast, this year’s races for a trio of other commission seats heavily favor Democrats, and are expected to be decided in the Aug. 26 primary.

Three candidates have announced so far for District 2, now held by term-limited Commissioner Kristin Jacobs. They are: Coconut Creek City Commissioner Lisa Kohner Aronson, lawyer Mark D. Bogen and former Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Charlotte Elizabeth Rodstrom.

In that North Broward district, Democrats hold a 31 percent advantage, so most political observers believe the race will be decided in the primary.

District 6, where Commissioner Sue Gunzburger is also being forced out by term limits, the announced candidates are former Hollywood City Commissioner Quentin “Beam” Furr and State Rep. Joseph “Joe” Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach. Democrats have a 32 percent advantage over Republicans in the southeast Broward district.

Democrats’ advantage is even higher in District 8 – which stretches from Miramar and Pembroke Pines to West Park and western Hallandale Beach along Broward County’s southern border – where there are 38 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The two announced candidates, both Democrats, are incumbent Barbara Sharief, who now has the title of county mayor, and Alexandra P. Davis, a West park city commissioner.

Meanwhile, despite their concerns, the District 4 race between LaMarca and Keechl is moving towards a negative campaign.

Keechl vowed to “tell voters who their county commissioner is.”

In turn, LaMarca said he will “not sit back” quietly and “let him pound me.”

Said Kane said, “One person’s ‘defining their opponent’ is another person’s negative advertising.” 

Amid rising deaths, a warning that heroin epidemic has begun in South Florida

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org heroinpic

A new report sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse has determined that a heroin epidemic is underway in South Florida.

“The key issue identified in 2013 is the outbreak of a heroin epidemic in South Florida and particularly in Miami-Dade County,” says the report on local drug-abuse patterns and trends presented last week to NIDA’s Community Epidemiology Work Group.

“Heroin indicators which historically have been at relatively low levels compared to other drugs of abuse in South Florida rose sharply since the last reporting period.”

In Broward, where the misuse of prescription painkillers has declined yet remains high, “heroin and/or prescription opioids constitute an opiate epidemic,” the report says.

Heroin-related deaths in Miami-Dade jumped from 15 to 33, or 120 percent, between 2011 and 2012. During the same period in Broward, heroin deaths tripled from three to nine.

Medical examiner death statistics won’t be available for 2013 until next summer, but are expected to show further increases, according to report author James N. Hall, a drug abuse epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University’s Center for Applied Research on Substance Abuse and Health Disparities.

heroindeathschartThe grim upswing in heroin deaths has occurred elsewhere in Florida, where the report says year-to-year statewide fatalities increased from 62 to 117, or 89 percent. Hall said other “hot spots” for heroin use in Florida are Orlando, Jacksonville and Sarasota.

While deaths linked to cocaine, oxycodone and certain other addictive drugs continue to eclipse those caused by heroin, evidence of its swift spread is the basis for the conclusion that an epidemic has begun.

‘RAPID ESCALATION’ 

“It’s the rapid escalation that’s disturbing,” said Hall. “This is the mother of all addictions, related to so much destruction and so many serious consequences, particularly death, most of which are preventable. To declare it an epidemic is a public health responsibility.”

A chart of heroin deaths in Florida since 2000 presents a roller-coaster effect, with deaths peaking early then declining sharply as misused pain medications became available at pill mills and elsewhere. The sources of those numbers are reports from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.

Heroin’s surge was noticed last year in the wake of monitoring efforts following the state’s pill mill crackdown in 2011. One important change is the steady decline in deaths involving prescription opiates, notably oxycodone and its extended-release form, oxycontin.

Florida’s pill crackdown choked off supply and pushed up prices. But it may have had an unintended consequence as Mexican drug lords began flooding South Florida and other areas across the country with higher potency Mexican white heroin, Hall said.

The abundance of product has been accompanied by plummeting prices, which have dropped by nearly half since 2010.

“Heroin sells for as low as $10 for a little baggie, depending on how pure it is,” said Hall. “The target population is 18 to 29.”

Of special concern to researchers is the increased use of injections by young drug users who were children when the public learned about the high risk of infected syringes. Hall said 55 percent of those seeking treatment in Broward for being hooked on prescription painkillers reported their “preferred route of administration” was injection.

As a result, “a public health threat of increased HIV and Hepatitis C transmission is already occurring,” said a workgroup report issued last autumn.

TREATMENT ADMISSIONS JUMP

Deaths aren’t the only indicators measured by researchers.

The Florida Department of Children and Families tracks treatment admissions by primary drug for those seeking help at publicly funded facilities. In Miami-Dade, the number of persons admitted for heroin treatment more than doubled – 161 to 386 – between January 2012 and June 2013.

“Primary treatment admissions for heroin increased from four percent of all admissions in 2012 to eight percent in the first half of 2013 in Miami-Dade County, while remaining at five percent of all Broward admissions in both years,” according to the latest workgroup report.

Further, area crime labs reported a 13 percent increase in heroin detected in items analyzed during the same period.

Increasing or already high levels of heroin addiction were at the top of drug issues cited by researchers in 17 to 20 population centers across the country, including Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Texas, Seattle and San Diego.

Epidemiology Specialist Carol Falkowski is Hall’s workgroup counterpart in Minneapolis/St. Paul. She said a heroin epidemic is underway there, too.

“Heroin is more affordable than painkillers, produces the same effect and is sometimes just as available if not more available,” said Falkowski. “The growing presence of heroin in the U.S. now is akin to what the spread of cocaine was in the country in the 1980s.”

Hall sees things similarly from his vantage point in South Florida.

“I think it’s accurate to say that there are new heroin epidemics breaking out all over the U.S.,” he said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, has yet to release the latest heroin findings. But Hall, former longtime executive director of the Up Front Drug Information and Education Center in Miami, said those aware of the latest findings about heroin’s re-emergence have a uniform reaction.

“The reaction is, ‘Holy mackerel, this is really getting out of hand,’” said Hall.

Senate leaders want special districts covered by state lobbyist registration laws

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Senate President Don Gaetz, right, and Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee

Senate President Don Gaetz, right, and Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee

Key lawmakers in Tallahassee say they will introduce reform legislation this session to require lobbyists at independent special districts to publicly register and disclose who they work for and how much they’re being paid.

Those often obscure, special-purpose governments spend billions of public dollars every year raised from taxpayers or through bond sales, fees or assessments. They outnumber Florida’s counties, cities, towns and villages more than two to one.

Yet as BrowardBulldog.org reported last week, only three independent special districts have adopted any kind of lobbyist registration requirements.

Legislators from both parties supported a change in state law to make lobbyist registration mandatory at special districts.

“This is an area that we intend to deal with in a second ethics bill that will come before the Legislature this year,” said Senate President Don Gaetz. “There are a number of things that either didn’t get in last year’s ethics bill, or weren’t contemplated, and this is one of them.”

“I personally support the idea that ethical standards, including lobbyist registration, apply to special districts,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Broward Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue.”

Gaetz also wants to make registration obligatory for all local governments, which also are not covered by state lobbyist regulations.

Most of Florida’s larger counties and cities have enacted lobbyist registration ordinances to promote integrity and transparency in the decision-making process. A notable exception: the city of Lakeland, with a 2012 citywide budget of $556.1 million.

In November 2011, however, a little-noticed survey by the Florida League of Cities found that “only 15 percent of municipalities require lobbyists to register in their city.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, is working with Gaetz to assemble the new ethics bill. He said he was surprised to learn about the lack of lobbyist registration at special districts.

“It never dawned on me that these special districts would not have some sort of lobbying mechanism for registration,” Latvala said. “I think it’s especially important for the water management districts and other large districts, but there are a lot of small independent special districts and I’m not sure whether they have enough staff to keep up with this.”

Sen. Jeremy Ring of Parkland

Sen. Jeremy Ring of Parkland

Sen. Jeremy Ring, chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, called independent special districts a “shadow government.”

“Special districts should have lobbyist registration,” said Ring, D-Parkland. “They have gotten away with this because they are government out of the sunshine. We need to start treating them more as if they are in it.”

Independent special districts provide dozens of specialized services to residents across the state, including hospitals, ports and airports, mosquito control, transportation and highways and community development. Collectively, they spend in excess of $11 billion in public funds annually.

BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, documented the absence of lobbyist registration at nearly all of Florida’s 992 independent special districts.

House Speaker Will Weatherford issued a statement indicating he intends to follow the Senate’s lead about ethics reform, including the expansion of laws regarding lobbyist registration requirements.

“Last year, the Legislature passed a historic ethics reform bill and President Gaetz was a tremendous leader on the issue. I look forward to working with him on the issue again this year,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Gov. Rick Scott likewise appears receptive to the idea of reform.

“Governor Scott looks forward to working with the Legislature to make sure special taxing districts operate as transparently as possible so taxpayers can hold them accountable,” said Jackie Schutz, the governor’s press secretary.

Independent special districts: Where lobbyists ride free and the public is in the dark

 

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org  

Florida's sprawling water management districts spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year, but do not require lobbyists to register. Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Florida’s sprawling water management districts spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year, but do not require lobbyists to register. Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Nearly 1,000 special-purpose governments across Florida that raise and spend billions of dollars in public funds every year do not require lobbyists who appear before them to register, pay fees or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.

Lobbyist registration and disclosure have been mandatory for years in Tallahassee and in many city and county halls across the state, where lawmakers found it necessary to preserve the integrity of the decision-making process. Violators can be fined and barred from lobbying for up to two years.

But Florida’s independent special districts are a separate class of government – a hodgepodge of obscure taxing and other authorities that, with few exceptions, offer the public no information about lobbyists or what they’re up to at their agencies.

BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Washington-based Fund for Investigative Journalism, spent months documenting that sweeping lack of government accountability; a free ride enjoyed by lobbyists at independent special districts around Florida with the power to tax, assess fees and/or sell low-interest bonds to finance government spending.

“The issue is transparency: who is getting the benefit of governmental largess,” said Frank S. Palen, a West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts.  “If people don’t have knowledge it undermines legitimacy, but as a practical matter it would depend on the scale of the entities.”

Independent special districts have been around for 100 years. The oldest, the Hastings Drainage District in Putnam and St. Johns counties, was created July 1, 1913, according to Jack Gaskins Jr., who runs the state’s Special District Information Program.

Eric Draper, executive director Audubon of Florida

Eric Draper, executive director Audubon of Florida

Today, these agencies offer dozens of specialized governmental services – from water management, mosquito control and community development to public hospitals, children’s services, ports and airports.

Hundreds of districts, like the Choctawhatchee River Soil and Water Conservation District in Florida’s Panhandle, are so small they’re unlikely to see lobbyists looking to influence policy or a contract award.

MANY DISTRICTS SPEND BIG

But many independent districts with big money to spend, like the $622.2 million South Florida Water Management District, regularly encounter lobbyists.  The state’s largest water district collects property taxes in 16 counties and is run by a governing board appointed by the governor and dominated by real estate, agribusiness and development interests.

The environmental group Audubon Florida sees a problem in the lack of lobbyist registration at government agencies like the South Florida Water Management District.

“There are consultants to the sugar industry who are spending time with and influencing the thinking of South Florida Water Management District governing board members and they should be registered as lobbyists,” said Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper. “We see them, but it’s too shadowy to know exactly what they’re doing.”

Florida’s five water management districts levied $480 million in property taxes statewide in 2012, yet none register lobbyists. Draper said the Legislature should adopt statewide lobbying rules for all special taxing districts.

“We should know who is lobbying, who is being paid to lobby and who they are lobbying,” Draper said.

Florida Department of Revenue data obtained in response to a public records request identified 93 independent special districts with annual budgets of more than $10 million in 2012. chart2

BrowardBulldog.org surveyed dozens of independent districts, including the 38 largest with budgets in excess of $50 million. Only three districts reported having some form of lobbyist regulation; another prohibits lobbying in its bylaws. The rest, with cumulative annual spending of $7.1 billion, said they do not require lobbyists to register.

A half-dozen attorneys and officials who represent or work for special districts in Florida, including Palen, said they were aware of no other independent districts that register lobbyists.

Integrity Florida, the Tallahassee-based nonprofit and nonpartisan government watchdog, said change is needed to ensure accountability.

“If you’re spending taxpayer money and there’s a lobbyist involved in the spending of that money then there should be at least some basic lobbyist disclosure,” said Integrity Florida Research Director Ben Wilcox. “This situation has never really come up and been discussed that I can remember.”

O’Neal Bardin Jr. is president of the Florida Association of Special Districts and is also executive director of the $28 million Northern Palm Beach Improvement District. He said registration would help those who work at special districts better understand those who may approach them.

“Are they trying to persuade me of a position based on their remuneration or employment? It’s a matter of understanding who you are talking to,” said Bardin. “It seems based on a sense of uniformity that it would make sense that we do the same thing about lobbyists as the county or the city or the school board does. It would certainly further transparency.”

Special districts are independent or dependent. Dependents, which include ubiquitous community redevelopment agencies (CRAs), are vassals of municipalities and typically follow their rules regarding lobbyist registration.

ANTI-CORRUPTION LAWS DON’T EXTEND TO SPECIAL DISTRICTS

There are 992 active independent special districts, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s special districts database. They outnumber Florida’s counties, cities, towns and villages better than two to one yet operate largely in the shadows of their better-known municipal counterparts.

The Uniform Special District Accountability Act of 1989 obliges special districts to comply with many of the same accountability standards that apply to state and local governments, like open meetings and public records. But state anti-corruption laws requiring lobbyists before the Legislature and the Executive Branch to annually register, pay fees and disclose their clients and compensation don’t extend to special districts.

“I haven’t heard why the Legislature didn’t include special districts,” said Bardin. “But they could easily have overlooked it…we’re not the first group that comes to mind when you talk about governments.”

“You can’t think of everything,” said attorney Palen.

Florida law also does not require counties, cities and other municipalities to enact lobbyist registration rules, although many have. In jurisdictions with no lobbying rules, like rural Sumter and Highlands counties, that means dependent districts don’t register lobbyists either. chart1

Florida has authorized 136 independent districts, many run by unelected boards, to impose ad valorem taxes on homeowners and businesses in one or more counties, according to the Department of Revenue data. Not all exercise that power, but in 2011 – the most recent year for which complete statistics are available – those that did levied more than $1.82 billion in property taxes.

Seven districts account for half of that total. They are: the South Florida, Southwest Florida and St. John’s River water management districts; the North Broward Hospital District, also known as Broward Health; the Health Care District of Palm Beach; the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach and The Children’s Trust in Miami-Dade.

Their cumulative 2012 property tax bite: $936,700,000.

The Children’s Trust is the only one of the seven with a registration requirement. It doesn’t handle the task itself; rather, it voluntarily follows the county’s rules and advises lobbyists to register there, President and Chief Executive Charles Auslander said in an email.

ONLY TWO DISTRICTS REGISTER LOBBYISTS

Only two districts in the state register lobbyists themselves: the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which runs Orlando International Airport, and the South Broward Hospital District, also known as Memorial Healthcare.

The information they collect and its accessibility to the public varies.

For example, Greater Orlando requires lobbyists to file annual expenditure reports detailing how much they spent on entertainment, research, advertising, travel, hotels and the like. South Broward does not. Also, Greater Orlando posts lobbyist information online; South Broward does not.

The Broward’s Children’s Services Council, with 2012 revenues of $59.5 million, prohibits lobbying in its bylaws.

Smaller districts, which provide services such as lighting, drainage, fire protection and community development, have budgets that typically run between $750,000 and $2 million a year, according to special districts association president Bardin. Many of those entities, like the Choctawhatchee River Soil and Water Conservation District in Defuniak Springs, had budgets of $50,00 or less in 2012.

Lobbyists generally have little interest in those small-money districts.

“Someone is not going to hire a lobbyist for a $10,000 janitorial contract,” said Bardin, whose association represents about 200 mostly small special districts.

Yet a small district with a contract worth a million dollars a year is another matter.

LOBBYISTS AND LAWN MOWERS

The obscure Capital Regional Community Development District (CDD) raises revenue through assessments to operate and maintain several planned communities in Tallahassee. Several years ago, it bid out a three-year lawn-mowing contract worth $3 million.

“That’s the only time I was approached by a lobbyist,” said David Ramba, a lawyer and lobbyist for the special districts association who also chairs the Capital Region CDD.

Smaller districts with large public works projects are also attractive to lobbyists.

Frank S. Palen, West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts

Frank S. Palen, West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts

The $12 million Lake Worth Drainage District has for several years been exploring the establishment of a regional water utility to address southeast Florida’s future drinking water supplies, said Palen. It would involve a re-plumbing of much of western Palm Beach County to make drainage flow to the south to replenish aquifers in Broward and Miami-Dade.

“The project may involve a $1 billion investment in infrastructure, land acquisition, etc.,” said Palen. “It should attract a lot of interest.”

Community development districts, like Capital Regional, assess fees on homeowner’s lots and have issued billions of dollars in low-interest municipal bonds to pay for local roads and other infrastructure. They account for more than half of Florida’s independent special districts.

During the build-out phase, developers run the CDD’s governing board. Later, homeowners take control.

Miami Lakes investment advisor Richard Lehmann publishes the Florida Community Development District Report. He said he doesn’t see the lack of lobbyist registration at CDDs as a problem.

“Developers run things as if they were paying the money themselves,” said Lehmann. “For homeowners, it’s money that’s coming out of their assessments and therefore it’s not like a government spending other people’s money.”

PURITY IN PURCHASING

Janet Tutt is the district manager of The Villages, the fast-growing retirement community about 20 miles south of Ocala. The Villages is comprised of 13 CDDs and one dependent utility district in Sumter County that work together via inter-local agreements.

“We have $250 million in budgets,” said Tutt. “Some of our contracts are quite large.”The Villages has no lobbyist registration, but discourages lobbying “as a matter of custom,” according to Tutt. “The purchasing process is only as good as how pure it’s kept.”

Purity is a word not necessarily associated with special districts.

In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott ordered a thorough review of Florida’s 1,600 special districts with an eye toward finding efficiencies and increasing accountability.

“We’re still working on it,” said Scott’s press secretary, Jackie Schutz.

In 2011, BrowardBulldog.org reported about the South Florida Water Management District’s $1.5 million purchase in 2007 of 15 large electric pumps that quickly failed, and how the company that sold the pumps was refusing to honor its warranty. At the time of the sale the company had an undisclosed inside connection: its lawyer/lobbyist was vice chairman of the district’s nine-member governing board. The lack of lobbyist registration served to veil that relationship.

Other special districts in the news:

  • The billion-dollar North Broward Hospital District, which has a long reputation for political favoritism and a lack of transparency in contracting, is the focus of an ongoing federal anti-kickback inquiry that’s examining allegations of bogus Medicare and Medicaid claims.
  • Prosecutors in Orange County are investigating two board members of the troubled Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA), which collects hundreds of millions of dollars in tolls, for possible Sunshine law violations regarding their alleged efforts to oust the authority’s former director, according to the Orlando Sentinel. In 2007, an authority contractor was indicted for bribery after he gave $2,600 in theme-park tickets to OOCEA’s chairman in hopes of keeping his contract.
  • The Lee County Mosquito Control District, with a $22 million annual budget, has a bug-killing air force and its own airport. It’s been criticized for overspending. In 2012, then-Republican Sen. Mike Bennett called it “truly a showcase of out-of-control special taxing districts,” according to the Fort Myers News Press.

None of those districts has lobbyist registration. Yet each pays lobbyists to influence matters of policy or procurement in Tallahassee, where they must register.

COSTS TO REGISTER LOBBYISTS PROHIBITIVE?

Many other independents pay lobbyists, too, including smaller districts where the cost of registering lobbyists is considered prohibitive.

Terry E. Lewis is a Palm Beach lawyer and lobbyist. He represents a dozen special districts, including independents like the Port of Palm Beach.

“For the South Florida Water Management District, maintaining a lobbyist list would be a blip on their financial radar screen…On the other hand, I’ve worked with some special districts that literally have one employee and a budget of $25,000. So you’ve kind of got the disparity complaint, that it’s a financial burden,” Lewis said.

Broward County confronted the cost problem two years ago during a rewrite of its ethics ordinance. It was decided then to hold down expenses by confining its monitoring and enforcement of lobbyist registration requirements to the county and all municipalities. Special districts were left out.

“It became too expensive to monitor others,” said County Commissioner Lois Wexler. “This is something that should be addressed by the Legislature.”

In the meantime, one independent district in Broward surveyed for this article, the Downtown Development Authority of Fort Lauderdale, has decided to change.

“Your question intrigued me, so I talked with counsel and we will be starting a registration system,” said Executive Director Chris Wren, whose agency is spearheading development of a $142 million streetcar system called The Wave. “We will post the information online.”

Oakland Park commissioners likely to decide soon on controversial psychiatric hospital

The former North Ridge Medical Center Photo: BrowardBulldog.org

The former North Ridge Medical Center Photo: BrowardBulldog.org

 

UPDATE: Jan. 16 — Shot down unanimously by Oakland Park’s planning and zoning board on Monday, a Delray Beach drug rehab operator’s controversial plan to develop a 300-bed psychiatric hospital on the site of the old North Ridge Medical Center is expected to go before the city commission soon for a final decision.

A hearing could be held at City Hall in as soon as three weeks.

“The applicant wants Feb. 5,” said senior planner Kristin Nowicki. “I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to do that, but we have to make sure all the requirements are fulfilled. If not, then it would be the 19th.”

The applicant is Palm Partners LLC, which operates a small, upscale drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. The company’s owner, Peter A. Harrigan, has said he expects to create 300 jobs at the North Ridge site.

“We had a packed house at our hearing,” said Caryl Stevens, a former mayor who now chairs the zoning board. “The area around this site is a working class neighborhood and it is by design: easy accessibility to schools. People are concerned.”

UPDATE: Jan. 13 — Declaring that a proposed psychiatric hospital is not compatible with nearby Northeast High School, the Broward School Board notified Oakland Park today that it “must compel the applicant to ensure” the facility “will not negatively impact” the school.

“The subject sites are in close proximity to Northeast High School. The district’s position is that the proposed project is incompatible with the school due to potential spillover effects from the proposed establishment,” said the letter sent to the city clerk boy Mohammed Rasheduzzaman, a planner in the growth School Board’s monitoring unit.

The high school is about a block away from the site, which once housed North Ridge Medical Center. Many children heading to and from school must walk by the property.

The School Board’s decision to wade in on the matter only hours before tonight’s public hearing before the city’s planning and zoning board could jeopardize chances for approval that had earlier seemed likely.

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

A proposed 300-bed “psychiatric/behavioral health facility” on the site of the shuttered North Ridge Medical Center in Oakland Park is stoking fear among jittery neighborhood residents, and assurances of strong oversight and security from the prospective new owner.

Palm Partners LLC, which operates an upscale drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Delray Beach, hopes to operate a similar facility on the 11-acre campus that would take advantage of the hospital setting to provide not only inpatient detoxification and rehab, but treatment for other maladies such as eating disorders and sleep apnea.

“We run a very tight ship,” said Peter A. Harrigan, owner and chief executive of for profit Palm Partners. “I think we’ll be a great asset for the community.”

Harrigan said he expects to create 300 new jobs.

City planning staff is recommending approval, with several minor conditions like improved landscaping and the addition of bus shelters. A public hearing before the planning and zoning board is set for Monday at 6:30 p.m. The city commission is to take up the issue in February.

Palm Partners owner Peter Harrigan

Palm Partners owner Peter Harrigan

Monday’s agenda item about the new North Ridge psychiatric hospital does not use inflammatory words like “drug” or “alcohol,” nor is there any discussion of Palm Partners’ existing drug rehab center and treatment program.

Rather, the document indicates Palm Partners will cater only to a well-heeled class of psychiatric patient.

“Palm Partners will not accept Medicaid patients, Baker Act patients, other indigent care patients or walk-ins. All patients will pay through private insurance, third party reimbursement or cash,” the agenda says.

Most patients will stay “30-90 days.” The cost of a 30-day stay at Northridge would be $24,500, Harrigan said.

Holy Cross Hospital bought the site at 5757 N. Dixie Highway from healthcare giant Tenet Healthcare in 2008 for a reported $20 million, including an adjacent medical office building. It has agreed to sell to Palm Partners for an undisclosed sum, but the sale is conditional on the city’s approval of Palm Partners’ plans. While there has been some confusion about the status of the office building, which is occupied, it is not part of the proposed sale, according to city officials.

Once the purchase by the for profit Palm Partners closes, the property now owned by the non-profit Catholic hospital would return to the city’s tax roll.

northridgenoticeThe facility, originally an acute care general hospital built in 1974, is near three public schools: Rickards Middle, Northeast High and North Andrews Gardens Elementary. Children walk by every day on their way to and from school.

Signs have been up at the site for more than a month disclosing the upcoming hearing, but several people interviewed for this article were critical of what they said were the city’s inadequate notification efforts.

Kristeena Chace’s daughter attends Northeast and her son is a third-grader at North Andrews Elementary. She and her mother, Tina, believe Palm Center’s plans to draw psychiatric patients for treatment puts local children at risk.

“I have major concerns,” said Kristeena Chace. “I am an alumni of all these schools and I stayed in the neighborhood. I wanted to bring my children up in a safe environment. However, if a hospital like that is put in there my children will not be safe.”

Shannon Thompson, who has a first-grader at North Andrews Elementary and a seventh-grader at Rickards Middle, agrees.

“I’m not happy at all about this. It will expose our children to things that are probably not very safe,” said Thompson. “They’re claiming they’ll have good security, but I don’t foresee that as being 100 percent.”

Oakland Park Mayor John Adornato did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Harrigan says neighbors’ concerns are groundless. With 24-hour security and “a tremendous amount of psychiatric staff, doctors and nurses, we will provide the highest level of care.

“The biggest thing people need to recognize is that this is a voluntary program. They want to be there. They’re not court-ordered,” said Harrigan. “We are investing a tremendous amount of money in the neighborhood. We want the quality of the neighborhood to stay intact and we want to help it get better.”

A Palm Partners advertisement

A Palm Partners advertisement

Palm Partners’ program summary offers further safety assurances.

“No patients will be permitted to leave the facility without staff ascertaining the patient’s present status and ability. In the event a patient wishes to leave prior to the end of their treatment, arrangement will be made for them to be taken to their intended location off premises, in a safe and responsible manner,” the summary says.

The program summary says the new hospital will feature an array of health care practitioners including medical doctors, psychiatrists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, pharmacists and massage therapists.

Should the city commission approve the psychiatric hospital, the only remaining requirement will be a site license from the state.

Harrigan, who has other smaller facilities in Lantana and Miami, hired lawyer/lobbyist Pam Kane, a partner in Fort Lauderdale’s Panza Maurer & Maynard, to represent Palm Partners before the city.

In November, Palm representatives met with residents of the surrounding North Andrews Gardens and Embarcadero Condominium neighborhoods. Harrigan said “we’ve gotten a very favorable response.”

The stakes are high for Harrigan, who said he will relocate his corporate office to North Ridge.

“There is a lot of competition in this business,” he said. “Fort Lauderdale will be the cornerstone. This will double the size of our company.”

Harrigan said getting fully up and running would take “a couple of years.”

“After we close (the sale), it will be another 60 days before we take our first patient,” he said. “There will be 60 people on staff on opening day. It will be a slow ramp up.”

Hallandale commissioners approve taking from the city, giving to themselves

 

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Commissioners Anthony Sanders, Bill Julian and Michele Lazarow

Commissioners Anthony Sanders, Bill Julian and Michele Lazarow

Hallandale Beach city commissioners have created a new policy they can use to boost their take home pay by allowing them to pocket up to $10,000 a year in unspent funds from their individual travel accounts.

The city’s five commissioners each earn about $22,000 for their part-time service. In addition, each gets a  $10,000 annual travel allowance.

Before the change took effect October 1, the city had a use-it, or lose-it policy and unspent travel dollars reverted to the city budget. But now commissioners get to keep travel account cash they choose not to spend while on city business.

By a 3-2 vote in July, the commission directed that unspent travel funds be reimbursed to commissioners after the end of the city’s fiscal year on September 30.

Voting for the new reimbursement policy were the three commissioners who traveled the least in 2012-2013 and had leftover funds: Anthony Sanders, Bill Julian and Michele Lazarow.

Mayor Joy Cooper and Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy opposed the change. Both exceeded their $10,000 travel fund last year and even received additional city travel funds – Cooper $7,500 and Lewy $5,000, city records.

SPLIT REACTION

The change drew both criticism and support. “I think it’s a betrayal of trust,” community activist Charlotte Greenbarg said of the cash in policy. Referring to the $50,000 total travel allocation for commissioners, she said, “They shouldn’t be traveling that much.”

“I don’t see any problem with it,” said Csaba Kulin, another community watchdog and former unsuccessful candidate for a seat on the commission.

The idea of refunding unused travel expenses to commissioners was suggested at the July 29 meeting by Commissioner Sanders. He noted it has been done with unspent health insurance funds for years.

The new travel reimbursement policy could benefit Sanders the most. In 2012-2013, he spent  $1,040 from his $10,000 travel account, according to city records. If he spent the same amount this coming year, he would be reimbursed $8,960, representing a 40% salary hike.

Lazarow spent $2,329 last year. If she spent the same in the coming year, she would be reimbursed $7,671, representing a 34% salary increase.

Julian spent $4,265 last year. If he spent the same this year, he would be reimbursed $5,735, representing a 25% salary hike.

The trio defended the policy change, which was in addition to a 2.5% cost of living increase for commissioners approved at the same July meeting.

“We have to have reasonable income to spend more time at the office and not need another job,” said Sanders, a minister.

“I don’t go on many trips,” said Julian, noting that his commission salary is his only steady income and helps him take care of his elderly mother who lives with him in a rented duplex. The travel reimbursement, he said, would be taxable and “added income.”

Lazarow said the change was a way to adjust commissioners’ pay without increasing their base salary.

Meeting minutes record that Mayor Cooper opposed the change and instead supported allowing for an increase in travel allowances when commissioners exceed their budget and have been selected to represent the city at state and national meetings.

In an interview, Cooper said that if commissioners’ wanted higher pay they should have sought a salary increase.

BIG TRAVELERS

City records indicate that when Cooper exceeded her $10,000 travel account last year the commission added $5,000, and later another $2,500 to cover additional business travel expenses.

Cooper traveled to attend meetings of the National League of Cities in Boston and Washington D.C., and the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington D.C. City records show she spent all but $439 of her $17,500 travel budget last year.

Lewy, a Democratic candidate for a state House seat, said in an interview that letting commissioners keep their unspent travel cash was a “disincentive” for commissioners to travel on city business because they may view use of funds as “taken from their own pocket.”

Lewy, who had his travel budget increased to $15,000 last year, went to National League of Cities meetings in Boston and Washington D.C. and also took other trips to the nation’s capital in connection with the city’s attempt to obtain U.S. Postal Service property near city hall. He had $1,131 remaining in his $15,000 travel budget at the end of the fiscal year.

The 2.5% cost of living increase raised salaries for four commissioners to $22,378. Mayor Cooper’s base salary, however, is slightly less at $21,727 because she turned down an increase several years ago during tougher economic times, according to the city’s Human Resources department.

Hallandale commissioners this year also get a $12,531 annual stipend to cover their purchase of health insurance. They are the only city officials eligible to have any left over funds refunded to them personally.

Last year, four commissioners got back money from unspent medical insurance funds. Commissioner Lewy received $5,402 and Commissioner Sanders got $1,235. Commissioners Lazarow and Julian, who were elected in November, 2012, received $1,030 and $1,501, respectively.

Mayor Cooper had no excess funds to claim last year. However, she was reimbursed $11,314 – the amount of last year’s stipend – after providing documentation to support her claim that she obtained outside coverage for at least that amount, according to city personnel official Radu Dodea.

Dodea declined to disclose what plans commissioners purchased from outside sources citing federal laws governing the privacy of medical records.

 

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