Kevin Robinson , firstname.lastname@example.org Published 12:03 p.m. CT March 25, 2017 | Updated 12:50 p.m. CT March 25, 2017
State legislators are considering a bill that could redirect millions of dollars earmarked for improving "blighted" local communities.
The proposed bill, House Bill 13, would eliminate Community Redevelopment Agencies, governmental bodies created to promote affordable housing, economic development, health and safety in under-served neighborhoods. In a nutshell, a CRA holds on to a set percentage of the property taxes paid by residents of a community and then invests that money back into the area.
The idea is that CRAs give residents of poor and working class neighborhoods a guarantee that at least some of their taxes will be dedicated to making their lives better, and not just making the rich in other parts of town richer.
Still, recent mishandling of CRA funds in South Florida has sparked legislation that would prohibit new CRAs from being formed after July 1, prohibit CRAs from taking on any new projects or debts after Oct. 1 and eliminate all of the state's CRAs by 2037. The legislation would also create additional oversight and reporting requirements for all CRAs statewide.
It's being described by some as the "nuclear option."
In Northwest Florida — where officials contend they've used CRA dollars as intended and to benefit communities and taxpayers — there is fear that eliminating CRAs because of problems in another region is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
One of Pensacola's recent CRA initiatives is the construction of the Gen. Chappie James Flight Academy and Museum in a predominately black community along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Although the flight academy — a camp that teaches children aviation along with science, technology, engineering and math — predates the current construction project, the program's executive director said the extra funding and facilities will allow the program to operate all year, instead of just during the summer.
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"It's a huge benefit for getting kids started and excited in careers that are blossoming," Clifton Curtis Jr. said.
Pensacola officials drafted a letter for the Legislature outlining some of the benefits CRAs have afforded the city. It notes since 2014, combined assessed values in city CRAs rose by more than $229 million, and, in 2016, the $1.4 million in public investment made in the CRAs generated $98 million in private investment.
The city points to downtown as an example of the promise of CRAs, noting the area was once lifeless and underutilized but now serves as a bustling hub of commerce, recreation and tourism.
"Pensacola Downtown is in an active renaissance as a result of the CRA/(Tax Increment Funding) in the previously derelict downtown and surrounding neighborhood," stated a letter from the city to state legislators. "The work is not finished. The same work needs to be carried out in the adjacent neighborhoods."
In recent years, local CRA funds have contributed to projects that include the beautification of roadway medians, initiatives matching dollars homeowners invest in energy efficiency and storm-proofing projects and the establishment of Community Maritime Park.
According to a February report by the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, CRAs in Escambia County and Pensacola took in a total of $5.1 million in revenue during fiscal year 2014-2015. CRAs in Milton and Gulf Breeze took in about $940,000 during the same time frame.
The elimination of CRAs wouldn't affect overall tax revenue, but it would mean there would be no reserved funding for blighted areas. CRAs were created because residents of poor communities weren't faring well when projects benefiting them had to be carved out of a general budget.
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The push to eliminate CRAs is rooted in recent investigations that found significant issues with how CRAs were run in Miami and Broward County. A Miami grand jury found that insufficient oversight of CRAs and a lack of citizen input in their operation created opportunity for those funds to act as a "slush fund" for elected officials' pet projects.
HB 13, sponsored by Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Valrico, comes on the heels of the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability's audit of state CRAs.
Some provisions of the bill have been welcomed broadly, like required ethics training for CRA commission members and mandatory reporting on annual project expenditures, debts and outcomes. However, the bill would also limit the spending authority of CRAs to paying off existing debts, which would prohibit new CRAs from being formed and mandate they lapse out of existent by 2037.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, has filed a companion bill, Senate Bill 1770, that includes the same transparency and accountability measures as the House bill, but offers an alternative to eliminating all CRAs. The Senate bill would allow a super-majority vote of council or board members to create new CRAs or extend the life of an existing one beyond 2037.
Both bills are still under review by legislative subcommittees, but HB 13 has already passed its first hurdle by a 9-6 vote.