Joseph Cranney, email@example.com; 239-213-6035Published 8:00 a.m. ET Aug. 13, 2017
A Naples City Councilwoman is calling for an outside audit of the Community Redevelopment Agency after city officials said they couldn’t satisfy her request for a years-long accounting of CRA spending.
Amid concerns that Naples has misused its anti-blight CRA funds by spending millions within the city’s swanky commercial district, Vice-Mayor Linda Penniman has requested a list of CRA capital projects since the district formed in 1994.
City Manager Bill Moss said the records aren’t immediately available.
But Penniman said a third-party audit of the city’s budgets, financial reports and CRA records could determine if Naples has spent most of its tens of millions in CRA money on Fifth Avenue South rather than other blighted areas, as some critics have suggested.
“If a great deal of the funding has gone to Fifth Avenue, then that to me is somewhat problematic,” she said.
CRAs are a widely-used special taxing district intended to fight urban blight by collecting annual increases in taxable values within blighted areas and pumping the money back into the district for public improvements.
Critics have cited a potential misuse of CRA funds in their opposition to the city’s proposal to spend $15 million in CRA money for a new parking garage near Fifth Avenue.
The Naples City Council on Tuesday will consider the 350-space garage planned for the intersection of Fourth Avenue South and Fourth Street South, within the CRA district. The city’s redevelopment panel and the area’s business leaders are urging the council to approve the project.
But Penniman said she can’t support using CRA money to pay for the garage without a detailed accounting of previous spending.
“If we are the keepers of the purse, we need to be making decisions on solid verifiable numbers,” she said. “This is not a guessing game.”
Moss said detailed capital expenses may be impossible to obtain for an auditor.
“We’d have to determine whether we have 20 years of records,” he said. “It’s not an easy task. We can’t give them information we don’t have.”
The state requires local governments to perform an annual CRA audit, which Naples includes in its regular audit of all of its funds, Finance Director Ann Marie Ricardi said. Penniman said those audits don’t satisfy her request for detailed CRA project descriptions and expenses.
Another state requirement for an annual CRA improvements report provides some information on capital spending, but not detailed project information, records show.
But old records are hard to come by. Before Ricardi joined the city in 2002, the city wasn’t compiling the required annual improvements report, Ricardi said.
“When I came on board, I read the statutes and said, ‘Why aren’t we doing these?’” she said. “It’s in the state law. And I said we need to be doing this.”
In recent year, CRAs across Florida have faced criticism for legal and ethical issues.
A Miami-Dade grand jury report in 2016 slammed the state’s CRAs and accused them of being used as “slush funds” for officials to funnel public money to well-connected private interests, while ignoring a goal to eliminate blight.
Earlier this year, the council agreed to allocate $120,000 in redevelopment spending in the River Park area after some community leaders said their area hadn’t received a fair share of CRA spending.
River Park, the only low-income community within the CRA, was cited as “the most important residential redevelopment area” by the Naples task force that recommended creating the CRA in the 1990s.
But the River Park neighborhood of more than 60 single-family homes, east of Goodlette-Frank Road, hadn’t received CRA funding for nearly a decade before the council allocated funds in April, the Naples Daily News reported.
The CRA has funded some projects in the River Park area surrounding the neighborhood, including $550,000 in 2012 to help pay for a renovated public pool.