Spring Special Election: Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood Vote On Taxes, Police and Parks

Mar 10, 2019

Both Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood will ask voters tomorrow to approve bonds to renovate parks and build brand new police stations. Officials from both cities say the upgrades are way overdue. 

Fort Lauderdale is asking voters for two separate bonds: a $100 million bond for the construction of a new police headquarters, and a $200 million bond for improvements at nearly every one of the city's 80+ public parks.

Hollywood is asking for one $165 million bond to be used in three areas: for a new police station; parks and golf course renovations; and neighborhood projects that aim to improve traffic and increase resiliency against sea level rise. (However, voters can choose whether they want money to fund each of the three categories of projects, separately.) 

The plans would amount to extra property taxes in both cities, and can only move forward if a simple majority of voters say 'yes'  in the special spring elections. 

Voters have approved other recent tax hikes. In Broward last year, voters approved a sales tax increase for transportation projects and a property tax increase for Broward's school teachers and security measures. They also agreed to an $800 million bond payment for schools in 2014. 

Officials in both cities say they fully expect the bond measures to pass - but citizens have been more split than that during public comment portions of city commission meetings.  While some residents in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood say they're excited about the projects, others are nervous the change could further burden an already-stressed tax base. 


'Storage is our biggest challenge'

Fort Lauderdale's Police Station, right off Broward Boulevard, was built in 1958 to hold 100 employees. Now, more than 700 people work for the department.

Lieutenant Adam Solomon describes the station’s main problems: “Old pipes, asbestos, mold, you know the roof leaks." 

As a patrol division lieutenant, Solomon oversees the building and all of its challenges - including an elevator that frequently breaks down, air conditioners that aren't up to code, and a closet that's been converted into a room for body camera equipment. Solomon said the department has temporarily taken over the Parks and Recreation building next door for more space. 

Fort Lauderdale's City Commission decided last December to put a bond in a special election that would fund the building of a brand new police department headquarters, for $100 million. It would get built at the same location it is now. 

"I think it's important and I think we should move forward," Vice Mayor Ben Sorensen said. 

Alan Ragoonanan is head of maintenance at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. A lot of his work is in the basement - patching leaking pipes, and air-conditioners that gather fines for breaking code. Instead he stores temporary AC units to use down there.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN

Fort Lauderdale's Mayor, Dean Trantalis, argued $100 million was too expensive for a police station. But he voted in favor of sending the question to the voters.

Read More: Fort Lauderdale Will Ask Voters To Approve $300 Million For Parks, New Police Station

Charlie King lives in the Victoria Park neighborhood. He frequently comes to speak during public comment at city commission meetings. Before commissioners voted, he argued against a new police station.

"I really don't care what the inside of the police station is like," King said.

Another resident, Robert Walsh, leaned the other way during that meeting.

"We need a new police station...it's really bad and they shouldn't be subject to that," Walsh said. 

Fixing Up Parks

This special election isn’t just about a public safety complex - it’s also about public space. Fort Lauderdale is also asking voters for a $200 million bond for public parks. 

The money would go to more than 80 parks for a laundry list of projects: Repairing seawalls to deal with flooding, new bathrooms, signs, benches and playgrounds. 

At the meeting in December many residents, like Walsh, thought this was asking too much of taxpayers. 

“What I would do is, I would put the parks on the back burner,” Walsh said. 

Some parks, like Holiday Park and Joseph Carter Park, are set to get first priority if the bond passes in the special election. The commission also wants to build a new park, near Las Olas Boulevard, over the tunnel on U.S 1.

"The airspace over the tunnel is kind of wasted," Trantalis said earlier this month.  "We've been looking for ways to finance it and just have not been able to come up with the money."

All of these projects Fort Lauderdale is asking for means there would be a new tax on property owners for the next 30 years. 

For instance, if you’ve got a property worth $300,000 - and both bonds pass - you’ll have an estimated $142 dollars added to your property taxes each year. 

Almost 15 years ago, Fort Lauderdale asked taxpayers to approve bonds for new fire stations - $40 million dollars. That was supposed be done by now, but the city is still two stations behind.

The city is several years behind on the bond project from the last time officials asked for taxpayer money, for new fire stations in 2004. Mayor Trantalis said he hopes voters will be able to trust that the city can deliver on its promises this time: 

"I can't speak for previous commissions and I can't speak for the previous administration, but I do know that we have new people that are in charge," Trantalis said. "I'm hoping that we can do a better job - and I think the community can depend on that." 

'We're at capacity. Complete capacity.'

Like Fort Lauderdale, the City of Hollywood also wants bond money to build a new police station. Officials are asking voters to approve $78 million for the project.

"It's completely old school, it almost looks like a prison institution," Major Derik Alexander said outside of the Hollywood PD on Hollywood Boulevard. 

The building is from 1975. He walks past pipes that hang above evidence storage rooms. They've been known to leak onto the evidence:

"So we had to bring all that stuff out and dry it and see what we could salvage," Alexander said. "Not an ideal situation."

Police officers are hoping to install a parking garage and more work space. They hope upgrades can make the space hurricane-proof so officers don't have to evacuate during hurricanes.

Major Derik Alexander points out where the station's plumbing has had issues, including leaking into evidence storage rooms below.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN

"Our building is not rated to withstand a Hurricane beyond a three - we've evacuated the building," Alexander said.  

Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy believes the increase in property taxes would not be too large of a burden for residents. 

"The idea is to improve quality of life and public safety measures of the city today, and not wait," Levy said.

The average property owner's bill in Hollywood would go up by an estimated $106 per year for the next 25 years. Residents can calculate their exact monthly increase by checking the bond calculator on the city's website. 

Hollywood also wants upgrades for its park. Other projects in the bond include neighborhood, traffic and updates with climate change in mind - like building public seawalls.

"Residents came to us over a year's time and said to us what they wanted to see," Levy said. 

Like Claire Garrett. She lives off of the city-owned golf course, Orangebrook. It's been open since 1934, and last got its green redone in 1999.

She and some of her neighbors decided they couldn't just fight against all of the development proposals that were coming in. So Garrett decided to chair her neighborhood committee to push for the course's revitalization. She's been speaking up in public meetings, meeting with commissioners one-on-one and got more than 1,200 petitions signed to make sure Orangebrook was included in bond projects. 

Claire Garrett lives off of the Orangebrook course. Concerned about development, she has been spearheading efforts with the city to get a total renovation project included in the bond proposal.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN

"We must also be FOR something," Garrett said. "We've had to develop a constructive, positive vision for what Orangebrook could, and should, be."

That includes a stretch of open green space, designed to handle flooding. Hills would be installed for flood control.  

"It's very flat," Garrett said.  "When we have big rainstorm events, this golf course in underwater for days at a time, sometimes a week."

It also would need to be usable for people who want to do activities other than golf. If the bond passes, Orangebrook will get a nature path for joggers and bikers, and creatures.  

Garrett believes the hike in property taxes is worth it:

"It's a no brainer to spend $8.60-something a month, in order to save this land in perpetuity," she said. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

A lot of people in Broward are already stretched; half of the residents in the County can’t afford basic necessities, according to data from the United Way.

Garrett - and every registered voter in Hollywood - will get the chance to have their say Tuesday at the ballot box.