Legislation changing local control of Community Redevelopment Agencies is heading to the Florida Senate from the House. But it’s unlikely the Senate will take up the House bill. A similar bill in the Senate died in committee.
The Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency sold two downtown buildings last month to a developer to create an area of new residential housing, office space and a hotel with views of the Capitol Building. The development, valued at $158 million, is planned for north of the city’s Cascades Park. The park opened in 2014 and was also built using CRA funding.
Agencies use tax funding to build things like parks, museums and sidewalks. CRA projects in other areas include a soccer stadium in Orlando, affordable housing for artists in exchange for community engagement events in West Palm Beach County and an affordable housing development in the city of Miami.
The agencies partner with local cities or counties to renew “blighted” or rundown areas. But Rep. Jake Rayburn, R-Valrico, said some are wasting taxpayer money.
“Hallandale Beach, 7.4 million had to be cut out of the agency’s budget at the end of the year because they ran out of money and nobody knew why they ran out of money," he said. "Gross misuse of taxpayer dollars. Fort Lauderdale CRA, thousands of dollars in tax money was spent on a farewell event for a city commissioner and a retirement party for a city employee.”
Rayburn’s legislation requires more oversight of CRAs and creates new financial disclosure standards. It also shifts creating new CRAs from local governments to the state legislature after October 1st.
Florida has 222 community redevelopment agencies. Bill Peoples with the Florida Redevelopment Association said some of them are better than others. But he said the agencies are already held accountable.
“First of all their boards are comprised of elected officials and so they have the same accountability that you have, that cities have, that counties have," he said. "There is also a long and rich tradition of legislators bringing to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee requests to audit local CRAs.”
Rep. Barry Russell opposes moving the creation of Community Redevelopment Agencies to the legislature. He was the mayor of Lauderdale Lakes for eight years and served on the local CRA. He said there are projects in his city valued at about $300 million because of the agency.
“Also, there are other cities in my district that are beneficiaries of the CRA program," he said. "And I think it’s important for us to understand that local government needs to have the ability to govern themselves. It’s important, yes, to have the support of the state and the federal government, but I think we know best what is good for our city.”
Sen. Tom Lee’s companion bill got stuck in committee earlier this month. He said the current law allows devoting money to projects that don’t improve people’s lives in urban blight or impoverished areas.
“I do know that there are examples out there and those examples have given rise to a statute that was just very… Maybe it was written loosely on purpose, maybe that’s the reason it was done is so that these things could become slush funds for pet projects," he said. "I don’t know.”
The Senate can take up the House legislation if it chooses to, but it’s unlikely to do so.