EDITORIAL: A chance to change Riviera

Palm Beach Post Editorial
Friday, July 31, 2009

Could Riviera Beach finally be getting serious about good government?

The new city manager, Ruth Jones, has told department heads that they should consider themselves on 90-day probation, as she and others work on a plan to close the city's $4 million budget shortage. Her move implies that there will be no favorites as city leaders consider layoffs and furloughs. The Post for years has documented the damage to Riviera Beach from the political patronage that puts unqualified people in city jobs.

What's happened
  • CRA director fired.
  • Department heads on probation.
  • Review of employee spending.

    Ms. Jones also is reviewing employee-issued cellphones, take-home cars, purchasing cards and credit cards. She will find expenses to cut in those areas. As Councilwoman Billie Brooks said, "For a city our size (36,000), we've got much too much being spent on overhead."

    Last week, the city council, acting as the board for the Community Redevelopment Agency, fired CRA Director Floyd Johnson. He has been running the CRA since 2005, yet has little to show for those four years and his $185,000 annual salary. He said in an interview that the city was not well-positioned to attract developers or financing when he took over and credits his leadership with attracting five firms that vied for the chance to develop the city's waterfront in 2005. Nothing has come from that effort, however, except a series of plans.

    Mr. Johnson blames the economy and the fact that the Legislature barred Riviera Beach from using eminent domain to acquire properties. Still, the CRA is charged with bringing businesses to the city and redeveloping blighted areas, and there has been far too little progress. Although Publix is planning to build a store at the foot of the Blue Heron bridge - it will be only the second major grocer in the city - the CRA did little more than help the chain obtain permits.

    "We did not engage Publix. They came to us and said, 'We're purchasing the land,' " said city council Chairwoman Dawn Pardo, who favored firing Mr. Johnson. "Several small startup biotech companies have approached me in the past couple of months looking into the possibility of coming into Riviera Beach in the CRA area. We have no incentives in place for them. We should be trying to put together a program. The CRA has a substantial amount of money."

    The council should make that a priority for the new CRA director. The council also should adopt a cost-saving recommendation Ms. Pardo proposed at a recent budget workshop. She wants council members to share in the sacrifice that city employees will be asked to make by reducing or eliminating their $500-per-month travel allowance - $30,000 a year for the five members.

    Ms. Pardo has proposed that council members submit expense reports and get reimbursed for each mile of city business travel. The savings won't come close to balancing the budget, but it would be one of those little changes that show residents that Riviera Beach at last might make progress on the big things.