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Lake Worth 2020: Visionary Planning or Ye Olde Bait-and-Switch?

We stand by our claim that Lake Worth is the coolest city in South Florida. But when it comes to local politics, the little seaside burg is anything but. White-hot is more like it, with a history of bitter disputes, chiefly about development.

Lately, something as mundane as a bond issue has set temperatures rising. The bond is advertised to fund an infrastructure plan known as "Lake Worth 2020." It goes to the voters as a referendum on August 26. But legal experts say there is no way to guarantee that, if it passes, the $63 million issue will actually be spent as described.

See also: Lake Worth Is the Coolest City in South Florida

No one can travel the length and breadth of the city without seeing the need for repairs to streets and sidewalks -- particularly in poorer neighborhoods. Underground, the water and sewer system has decayed.

Lake Worth 2020 lays out a five-year plan to address these needs, in stages, starting with the worst-off neighborhoods and proceeding to the more wealthy ones. The bond will be paid out of property taxes, so more well-to-do residents will shoulder the burden.

It sounds like a socialist dream: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. A tough nut to swallow for the current city leadership -- who represent Lake Worth's more conservative, development-oriented "pavers" -- and a slam dunk for the city's "caver" faction -- leftwing hippie anarchist types. One would think, anyway.

But no. Splintered along new lines, some business and property owners are bitching about additional taxes and questioning the bond's size ($63 million's not huge as muni bonds go, but for little Lake Worth, a big deal).

Cavers, despite 2020's egalitarian/distributionist veneer, doubt the plan adequately addresses the impact of sea level rise (which other South Florida municipalities do), question the green impact of particular design elements, or mutter darkly about supposed back room deals with monied interests.

All of that may be beside the point, however, according to University of Miami School of Law Professor Stanley Langbein and University of Florida Levin College of Law Professor Joseph W. Little.

Both experts told New Times there is no way the bond referendum's language legally binds the city to use the bond proceeds as described at such great length in the Lake Worth 2020 flyers, brochures, power points, maps and graphs. And that's after the city commission voted to spend $50K selling the plan to the public.

According to the two profs, that's for two reasons: 1) Ballot measures, by law, are limited as to length, leaving little room for detail. 2) Municipalities, reasonably, want flexibility in projects as they unfold.

"If the city took the money and used it to build a football stadium the voters could sue," Little said. "But as long as it's for infrastructure, whether or not as [Lake Worth 2020] has it, the only recourse is political -- vote them out in the next election."

"I suspect the bond and the plan are offered in good faith," Langbein said. "But in theory the ballot language doesn't mean anything, legally. If it's used otherwise, it's a political problem."

We asked Lake Worth City Attorney Glen Torcivia about all this. "I suppose we could have drafted language that was somehow more explicit," he said. "But this is a lot tighter than a lot of other [bond referenda] I've seen over the years."

Torcivia argued that Lake Worth has matured, that the squabbles of the past are not indicative of present public sentiment, and that skepticism of City Hall has abated. (He doesn't follow Lake Worth's local bloggers like this one and this one, apparently.)

"You'd hope there's a certain level of trust," Torcivia said. "People should understand it's a pact with the public."

Here's the ballot language:

Shall the City of Lake Worth be authorized to issue bonds to acquire and improve roadway, sidewalk, streetlight, streetscape,drainage and water and sewer facilities located within the City in one or more series not exceeding a total principal amount of $63,500,000, payable from an annual ad valorem tax maturing not later than 30 years from the date of each issuance and bearing interest at a rate not exceeding the maximum legal rate?

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact [email protected].

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