Wellington mayor flip-flops on storm cleanup refund

Mar 19, 2008

South Florida Sun-Sentinel–Mar. 19, 2008
By Stephanie Horvath


What a difference an election makes.

Just three weeks ago, mayoral candidate Darell Bowen said during a candidate forum that he supported giving residents back the $115 hurricane cleanup charge they paid in 2005.

"Where I come from, a promise is the same thing as a written contract," Bowen said during the Feb. 27 candidate forum. "If it was promised to come back to the folks, that’s where it should go."

But Tuesday night, leading his first council meeting as Wellington’s new mayor, Bowen changed his position.

He said Wellington shouldn’t reimburse the money because it hasn’t collected $1.6 million of the $18.1 million it spent on hurricane recovery in 2004 and 2005.

"We still don’t have all the money back we spent," he said. "Somehow we need to get that across to everybody. It’s just not there. It’s not really true."

The village received a $3 million windfall earlier this year because of higher-than-expected investment returns. In addition, the village received $3 million in reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hurricane damage to its parks.

It would cost Wellington $2.1 million to pay back residents for the hurricane surcharge.

At the time the council levied the extra fee, it said if it got the money from FEMA, it would reimburse the residents. But Tuesday night the council said it didn’t want to make a decision about reimbursements until it started crafting its budget.

"We are preparing for another hurricane season. But we do remain $1.6 million out of pocket," Councilwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto said. "Any discussion … about refunding the money to residents was very premature."

Council members Bob Margolis and Laurie Cohen said they were willing to look into reimbursing the money.

"If there’s extra money there I think in the budgeting process we need to take a hard look at refunding some of that money," Cohen said. "I don’t think we should be sitting on money."

But Cohen’s opinion won’t count. Tuesday was her last meeting. Her successor will be elected Tuesday.

The village spent $18.1 million on hurricane recovery in 2004 and 2005, according to a staff report. All but $1.6 million was covered by FEMA, insurance payments and the hurricane surcharge. FEMA has never reimbursed the village for the debris removal paid for by residents.

Wellington already used $1 million in February to eliminate a hated park player pass for four years. All families had to buy the annual pass before participating in village recreation programs.