River of Greed: Broward New Times, Palm Beach FL, 4/19/07

The plan includes playing footsie with a controversial land baron and paving over a piece of the Everglades

By Bob Norman

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."

This is setting up a battle between education and the environment that will pit tax dollars against tax dollars. The fight will ultimately be determined by the state's Department of Community Affairs.

It can't end well. If the School Board purchases the Bergeron land and somehow beats the water district, the Everglades will suffer. If it buys the property and loses to the water district, it will be stuck with yet more land that it can't use.

And that land will come at an outrageous price. The board will have to buy all 45 acres — which, according to the figure of $900,000 per acre mentioned in School Board records, could result in a whopping sales price of about $40 million.

On top of that, 15 acres of the Bergeron site is occupied by a nursery owned by Rusty Hayes, who is adamant about not wanting to sell. Hayes won't even let the School Board on the property, so nobody knows if it's usable for a school. Another unknown will be the cost of replacing Hayes' nursery.

In addition to all of that, another road is slated to be built through environmentally sensitive lands. That will require regulatory approvals that might not come, and construction of the road could cost at least $8 million, according to district records. The total comes to, oh, about $50 million before the first brick is laid.

"It's an astronomical cost to the district," says board member Phyllis Hope, who represents both Weston and Sunrise and has emerged as a rare voice of reason on this issue.

Hope prefers a nearby site in Sunrise. Anybody with common sense and a semblance of civic responsibility would. That site, on New River Circle near the Sawgrass Sanctuary, has the advantage of having ten acres already owned by the School Board. In addition, the City of Sunrise, which favors building MMM in its city, owns 28 more acres there and is willing to donate the land. All told, it would require only the purchase of nine private acres.

We're talking about a savings over the Bergeron site of $30 million. On top of that, the Sunrise site is also more centrally located and could be used to relieve other overcrowded schools.

But Hersh and his Weston allies balked — in part because they don't want to share the school with other communities. "It would be used to relieve Plantation High," the mayor says. "And we wouldn't know if that site is available for six months to a year. We need relief now."

So choosing between tens of millions of dollars and a relatively short wait, Weston goes with throwing away the money. After all, it's not their cash. It's ours.

"When campaign contributors are involved and you're playing with tax money, anything goes," says longtime education activist Charlotte Greenbarg, who has seen years of this kind of lunacy and waste at the School Board.

The School Board so far has blindly followed Hersh's irresponsible lead. In a March 22 site selection committee vote, the vote was 10-8 in favor of the Bergeron acreage, in large part due to Weston's influence on the process. A possible sign that other politics were in play was the presence of Bergeron lobbyist and girlfriend Aleida "Ali" Waldman in the audience monitoring the proceedings.

"The problem with that location is that it can only benefit Weston and nobody else," says Sunrise City Commissioner Roger Wishner, adding, "But what Weston wants, Weston usually gets."

In this case, the prima donna western city's gain will count as a giant loss for taxpayers and for the Everglades.

It will come up for a vote at next week's meeting. Barring a massive outcry or a sudden rush of reason by board members, it will surely be passed. Board member Hope says she will plead with her colleagues to vote against this measure and urge them to support the sensible Sunrise site instead.

She even asked Interim Superintendent Jim Notter to include a presentation for the Sunrise site, since the vote was so close, but he shot down the idea.

So the administration, as usual, is failing the people. The vote is Tuesday. It's up to us.

Broward New Times, Palm Beach FL: http://www.browardpalmbeach.com