Definitely in My Back Yard

When the residents of Mangonia Park heard that a girls' detention center might be built in their town, they put out the welcome mat

"I have never known the African-Americans in Mangonia Park to become involved in what impacted their life," says Addie Greene, a Democratic state representative and Mangonia Park resident who is black. "When they put heavy industry over there in the Hill section, no one was speaking up for the African-Americans, and that's what happened."

"We had already got here and settled in," contends Ernestine Rouland, a 53-year-old resident who grew up in Mangonia Park and has stayed to take care of her aging mother. "And we didn't know a lot of industry was going to come in, and we couldn't afford to sell out right away, so we just stayed and hoped it would stop. But it increased."

By 1989, with 1400 residents, 290 businesses, factories, and warehouses, and a handful of churches, the town was bursting at the seams. Many of the homes were also more than 20 years old and beginning to show signs of age. As a result property values decreased, and the town was forced nearly to double the tax rate.

It didn't help the town much that most residents of Tiffany Lakes, the town's largest development, didn't -- and still don't -- pay property taxes. Most of the 240 condominium units in the neighborhood were appraised at about $25,000. Florida's Homestead Exemption Act allows homeowners to deduct the first $25,000 of the home's assessed value before paying taxes.

To make matters works, a nationwide jai alai players' strike that began in 1988 continued for three years, forcing jai alai venues to use poorly skilled, nonunion athletes. Spectators grew bored with the sport, found other gambling alternatives, and stopped flocking to the Mangonia Park arena. Between 1987 and 1994, attendance dropped from 2000 people per game to 665, and the number of games went from 300 to 175 a year.

At its peak in the mid-'80s, the jai alai arena employed more than 300 people from Mangonia Park and surrounding cities. In 1993 the Rooney family, owners of several racetracks and the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, bought the business for $7.8 million -- about $4 million less than its assessed value. The family tried to revive the sport, but interest had waned so much that, by the end of 1996, Palm Beach Jai Alai had to close its doors for good, putting 300 people out of work. The Rooneys still own the property and are trying to sell. In the meantime they continue to pay $35,000 in property taxes every year.

Because of the lost revenue from jai alai and diminished property values, the town council has quadrupled the property tax rate since 1989. That means a resident with a $70,000 home now pays $560, rather than the previous $140, per year in taxes. It's also an indication of why Mangonia Park has been so willing to let just about any business get a foot in the town's door. Case in point: Multidyne, a company that built a medical-waste treatment plant in the northeast section of town in 1990. The plan was to truck in medical waste from South Florida hospitals, chemically treat it, and send it off for disposal elsewhere. Both Fort Lauderdale and all of Martin County rejected Multidyne's proposal. Then Multidyne promised Mangonia Park that it would pay a fee for each barrel of sanitized waste. Combined with property taxes, the company was supposed to provide the town with at least $490,000 in revenue each year. The council voted three to two to allow it, and a year later the company went belly-up, providing Mangonia Park with only a few thousand dollars and an empty warehouse.

Town Administrator Darla Levy says it sounded like a good idea at the time. "They came in, and they were going to make the town very, very rich," she explains. "It was something no one else wanted in their community and no one [lived nearby] so...."

So, move on to the next proposal. In 1994 Tower Works sought to install a 550-foot telecommunications tower for cellular phones and AM radio in the vicinity of West Palm Beach. Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach officials wanted no part of a tower that tall, but Mangonia Park accepted the proposal, and it was soon constructed in Mangonia Hills, less than 200 yards from Willie Thomas' home. Tower Works pays $14,000 in property taxes every year, according to Levy.

"That's the way we survive," Levy explains. "If we only had residents, I don't think we'd be able to survive."

For a moment there in 1997, Mangonia Park residents thought survival looked bleak anyway. In October the town decided to buy fire protection from the City of West Palm Beach for $263,000 a year. In past years the town had shelled out $300,000 for a fire department consisting of one full-time fireman, a couple of trucks, and a slew of part-time volunteers. After the fire services deal was struck, politicians from Mangonia Park and West Palm Beach began discussing a similar arrangement for police services. But the discussion ended when town residents protested, claiming that West Palm Beach was just looking for ways to annex its neighbor to increase its own tax base.

"The residents think that because West Palm Beach is doing our fire services and they did give us an offer to take over our police department, the town thinks West Palm Beach wants to take us over," Levy says.

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