As a citizen, a business owner and as an organizational leader within the City of Boca Raton, I am an unabashed enthusiast of this town, its people, its beauty, its everything-including its government. However, as someone who frequents City Hall public sessions, I see three shortcomings in how our government functions, and I would like to offer our elected officials three suggestions which could make our great city even an greater place to live, work and play.
The first shortcoming is a fear of spending money. Thanks to the financial stewardship of our City Manager, Leif Ahnell, we weathered the Great Recession well, and now are a vibrant economic hub. We have a great tax base, low millage, and are in all ways fiscally stable. Yet, our City Council is afraid to spend money. Whether investing in small-scale local transportation, a parking garage or anything else, it seems that each council member is afraid to be “the one” who even suggests an expenditure. And, if money is spent, there is some jockeying to be “the one” who suggests spending less.
That’s a shame. Cities across the U.S. invest in themselves and are greater for having done so, even though tangible results can’t be measured, at least in the short-term. Many conversations at the “Dais” die once the conversation includes money or the scope of services.
There is a quick fix to frugality. My proposed solution is to spend money well. Don’t waste, but do invest in Boca Raton. The tax base will grow as our greatness grows. Investments into parks, transportation, parking and any number of items which enhance Boca would make us a truly “world-class” city, without jeopardizing our bond rating. The businesses and citizens pay the taxes which hold over for rainy days, but great cities always invest in themselves and earn the money back over time, without an immediate and daily evaluation of ROI (return on investment). Nobody wants to pay more taxes-but we have the money, more is coming in, and the state and federal governments continue to make more available to use than we can even evaluate.
I am a native New Yorker. In New York, the government spends serious money to make New York the place it is, which draws visitors from all around the world, year after year. Boca aspires to be a “world-class city”, but we will continue to stay less than “world-class” as long as our government declines to spend money on items (parking, transportation, etc.) which can’t demonstrate an immediate return on investment. Loosen up the purse strings a bit! We’ll all be better for it.
Secondly, and more frustratingly, is lethargy. We move slowly. That’s being kind. Verbal frustration is frequently expressed by our elected officials, themselves, about the slow pace at which the government’s staff moves. Yet, only the acquiescence of the elected officials to the timeframes offered by staff can allow our crawling pace to continue. I can’t blame staff for telling the elected officials that any given item which could be done in between meetings (typically two weeks) will take several months. Nothing more is demanded of staff. The snail’s-pace is accepted, and has thus become the norm. This never could exist in the private sector. But, in our city, whatever the timeframe given by staff seems to rule. The elected officials either believe that whatever timeframe is given is “the best we can do” or they don’t want to push the City Manager to push staff. Regulars at council meetings sit in disbelief as the same items are punted downfield, or punted downfield over and over again.
My suggestion-worry more about citizens, business owners and results and less about demanding more from the City Manager or his staff. I have never heard an “it can’t be done so fast” or “we can try, and we’ll let you know if we can’t”-all we hear is a collective “ok” after members have voiced their frustrations at what Mr. Ahnell or his staff has given as timeframes.
Lastly, that “vision” thing. The elected officials just spent several days at a “priorities” workshop. Yes, it was open to the public, but was the public engaged? No. There are lots of opportunities for citizens to be heard, but are they effective in engaging any meaningful cross-section of our city and its people in producing a vision of what we want for ourselves? No, not at all. Our voter turn-outs give us insight into how much and how many people are engaged, left to their own devices. But, should the city’s attitude be a “shoulder shrug” and a “they had a chance and didn’t come?” I don’t think so. The elected officials serve the taxpayers, and I suggest it takes more than perfunctory rhetoric and opportunities to get people involved in what they want as a vision for themselves. People have kids and jobs and it takes more and more ways to get people involved in what their government does. But it is possible, and it is important.
I just visited Boston. Boston’s government has signs all over asking for its citizens to participate in something called IMAGINE BOSTON 2030. Over 14,000 citizens have offered suggestions through the special website dedicated to the citizens’ visions, as well as through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. My suggestions is that our elected officials start to view Boca as a collective of taxpayers who are stakeholders in a collective future, into which they should have input. Maybe now that “Vision 90” is virtually complete, we can start a VISION 2025, something which allows for more stakeholders to provide input and ideas in more welcoming ways than have previously been provided. People use social media these days. Make things fun. Have contests. Summon the minds of our young people and college students. Have everyone offer something into a vision of where we’d like Boca to be, and what we’d like to get out of Boca. If we don’t, then the same people will provide the same input and we’ll always be less than the sum of our collective parts.
Boca Raton is great. It could be even greater. My hope is that our elected officials will invest more in our Boca, expect more from our City Manager and his staff, and begin a fun and all-inclusive inquiry into what we ALL want for our wonderful city’s future. After all, OUR futures depend on it.