County commissioners use recreation money for a variety of projects

Some Palm Beach County commissioners like to spread the wealth, doling out their $200,000 discretionary funds in small amounts to a variety of groups. Others prefer to hand it out in larger sums to a few projects.

In the decade since the Recreational Assistance Program began, commissioners have distributed $15.1 million for upgrading parks, lighting school athletic fields, and funding summer programs and cultural events. And all have pet projects they fund almost every year with these unrestricted taxpayer dollars.

Palm Beach County schools have been the biggest beneficiary of commissioners’ largess — about $2.9 million has gone to sports and music programs, campus upgrades, after-school programs and graduation events since 1993.

Commissioners and school officials say that money is important to cushion the blow of falling state funds.

“Schools are just a mainstay institution in their communities, and state funding is insufficient to meet all our needs,” said Joe Moore, School District chief operating officer. “We certainly reach out to the community for help.”

Another notable recipient in the past 10 years was the Mount Olive Community Outreach Center, a branch of the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Riviera Beach. It received more than $1.2 million, the bulk of which came from Commissioner Addie Greene’s District 7 predecessor, Maude Ford Lee.

Mount Olive has received disbursements from $100,000 to more than $200,000 over the years. It received $10,000 from Greene last year.

Lee, in office from 1990 to 2002, said the money was not solely for Mount Olive but for the Coalition for At-Risk Student Enhancement. She founded the nonprofit group of about a dozen agencies that offer after-school programs. Mount Olive was the lead group but never received more than $35,000 for itself, Lee said.

Use of the commissioners’ recreation money has been “very broadly interpreted,” County Administrator Bob Weisman said. The program’s intent is to funnel money for recreation or programs with an educational component. Giving to church groups is acceptable if it’s for a nonsectarian program that is open to the public, Weisman said.

Greene said she prefers to rotate her money among the 10 cities in her district. At a recent budget workshop, she said she needs more of it to go around. Greene was looking for another $50,000 for the recreation fund. Her district, which runs from Delray Beach into Riviera Beach, is in dire need of a fresh flow of cash for parks, landscaping and roads, she said.

Another program that provides gas tax money for discretionary spending by each commissioner has $1 million to spend annually on roads, drainage, sidewalks, buses and beautification. How that money is used is pretty clear-cut, Weisman said.

But does the money help commissioners buy votes? That’s what John Hallman wonders. The Florida director of Citizens for a Sound Economy said every spending decision should come with the opportunity for citizen comment.

“Certainly they could spend money on things that would benefit all of us, but we don’t know until they do it,” Hallman said. “To me, there’s not enough accountability in that setup.”

While the commissioners have their preferences, or pet projects, discretionary spending must get commission approval. The county attorney’s office and the Parks and Recreation Department review the projects to ensure they meet program criteria, Weisman said.

In the past three fiscal years, Chairwoman Karen Marcus, District 1 commissioner, has given $45,000 to the Shakespeare Festival, $95,000 for upgrades at Juno Park and $100,000 for baseball field lighting at Palm Beach Gardens High School.

Commissioner Jeff Koons, elected to District 2 in 2002, said he likes to give to arts programs and programs that reach residents who are underserved. He has given $65,000 to programs at Dreyfoos School of the Arts and $45,000 to two Hispanic groups: Aspira and Centro Cultural Latinoamericano.

In District 3, Commissioner Warren Newell recently gave $100,000 for the weight room, wall art and orchestra pit at Park Vista High School, the new high school set to open next month west of Boynton Beach. He also gave $50,000 for playground equipment at the Hispanic Human Resources in West Palm Beach.

Sandy Greenberg, president of the community group Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations, said she went to Newell to ask him to use his discretionary money for the high school. Residents west of Boynton Beach want the high school to become the area’s cultural meeting place.

“We don’t go in and say, `We want,'” Greenberg said. “It doesn’t work that way. We have to present a case of what we need.”

District 4 Commissioner Mary McCarty has given $10,000 repeatedly to South Palm Beach County senior programs and $5,000 repeatedly to Delray Beach’s annual hot air balloon race.

Our Lady Queen of Peace Mission, Jewish Federation and Youth Activity Center west of Boca Raton were on District 5 Commissioner Burt Aaronson’s list more than once. He also gave $66,500 for band uniforms and a baby grand piano for Park Vista High School.

District 6 Commissioner Tony Masilotti spread his allotment among 41 projects this fiscal year. More than half the money went to programs in the public schools in Wellington, Royal Palm Beach and Pahokee.

Greene this fiscal year gave to cultural groups — the Bangladesh Association of Florida, Expanding and Preserving Our Cultural Heritage and Roots Cultural Organization in Delray Beach.

Patty Pensa can be reached at or 561-243-6609.

Copyright © 2004,