By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The Broward County School Board and the City of Weston are about to sell us all down the river of grass.
District leaders are set to waste tens of millions of dollars on a bad land deal involving an extremely wealthy political contributor. The deal involves what appears to be a sham tax break for the seller and threatens a key component of the government's $10.5 billion Everglades cleanup.
The South Florida Water Management District is dead-set against the plan and promises to fight it, a conflict where the only sure loser will be the taxpaying public.
Topping it off is the fact that there's a perfectly good site in a better location that would save taxpayers a fortune.
But the district, as has been shown countless times in the past, has no qualms about squandering our money when politics are in play. That was proven most recently when board member Beverly Gallagher spearheaded the $4.3 million purchase of virtually worthless swampland at the behest of a gaggle of lobbyists and other political players last year.
This coming boondoggle is different, though, and not just because it will dwarf that one in cost to taxpayers or that it's pitting education against the environment.
It also hasn't happened yet. The board is set to vote on the purchase at next Tuesday's meeting. So there's still time to stop it.
Be warned: You're going to hear that this project is desperately needed to relieve overcrowding at Weston's Cypress Bay High School. That's true. It's a given that a new school, now known only as MMM, needs to be built. It's the chosen site that is disastrous and utterly irresponsible, not the idea for a school itself.
The land in question consists of 45 acres on a dead-end street at the edge of the Everglades in Weston. The bulk of the land is owned by multimillionaire land baron and developer Ronnie Bergeron, who has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into local politics, much of it into School Board races.
One of the main motivations behind the cowboy-hatted and belt-buckled Bergeron's contributions in the past has been to help him sell his land to the overpaying, bloated bureaucracy at the board. This time, though, he claims he doesn't want to sell, which will force the School Board to go through the costly process of eminent domain to purchase the land.
But Weston Mayor Eric Hersh, who is joined at the hip with Bergeron in the deal and has shepherded it from its infancy, tells us not to worry about that eventuality.
"I've been meeting with Mr. Bergeron for over a year," he says. "Mr. Bergeron is not a willing seller, but providing it is done through eminent domain and it's a fair-market value, he will not fight the eminent domain process."
That raises a good question: If Bergeron has been willingly negotiating with Hersh and is happy to sell the land at "fair-market value," why is the eminent domain process necessary at all?
Answer: It will likely drive up the price of the land and also serve to give the wealthy Bergeron a sweet tax break. Under federal tax laws, a regular sale would give Bergeron only 180 days to reinvest his profits in real estate to avoid paying capital-gains taxes. But if the land is sold via eminent domain, the seller gets a three-year shelter from paying capital gains taxes, which in this case will amount to several million dollars. It would also allow Bergeron to leverage the profits more freely to reinvest in other real estate.
In other words, it's a sham. And the School Board knows it. In official records, officials wrote that Bergeron "desired" to sell the land via eminent domain. That's what's called a contradiction in terms.
The financial shenanigans might be a matter for the IRS or the FBI, but they're almost insignificant compared to the environmental concerns and cosmic cost of the site. We'll start with the Everglades angle. The Bergeron property borders an area that has long been slated by the state as a giant reservoir for the massive Everglades restoration project. There is only one lonely road that accesses the site, SW 36th Street, and the school project hinges on that road's being available.
Problem: That portion of SW 36th Street is going to be flooded as part of the reservoir by the South Florida Water Management District.
Putting the road underwater is a crucial part of the $10.5 billon Everglades restoration plan, says SFWMD's deputy executive director, Ken Ammon. Right now, water from residential areas full of pollutants like oil, phosphorous, and acids is being pumped into the Everglades. The reservoir will store that water so it can be purified before contaminating the swamp. It's a $450 million project that has been in the works for many years.
"The city is demanding that the road stay put where it is," Ammon says. "I'll just say that the attitudes of Hersh and [City Manager John] Flint have been disturbing. Essentially, it doesn't matter if there is Everglades restoration or not to them."
Hersh seems to confirm this when he tells me: "That road is a perfectly good road owned by the City of Weston. We are not going to give it up. They don't own the land. We do."