Florida lawmakers want to phase out community redevelopment agencies that combat blight and slums. Complaints of misuse of funds and corruption are plaguing CRAs. But local governments are fighting to save them.
Taking a stroll through Cascades Park in Downtown Tallahassee, it’s easy to see the benefits of CRAs. Community Redevelopment Agencies work with local governments and private contractors to restore blighted neighborhoods. In the case of Cascades, what used to be a vacant superfund site is now a sprawling green space with trails and an amphitheater. Thomas Hawkins is a growth management advocate with 1000 Friends of Florida and he says CRAs are a unique way to prevent urban sprawl and protect natural land.
“CRAs matter because in order for folks to want to live in our existing communities, in order for them to accommodate new residents, they need parks, they need sidewalks," Hawkins said. “CRAs are one way that’s not generally available to municipalities to raise tax increment financing from that geographical area, bond it across multiple years to make those investments that allow our communities to be livable places.”
After a CRA invests in a neighborhood, it’s able to collect taxes on the increased property value. But Representative Al Jacquet, a West Palm Beach Democrat, says the agencies aren’t focusing that reinvestment in the areas that need it most.
“Too often we have CRAs that are collecting funds from the community that is blighted. And yet the development is not necessarily being done there for what they’re tasked to do,” Jacquet said.
Critics say money that could fund affordable housing and infrastructure is going to ball parks or street festivals instead. Lawmakers say the agencies have run their course. Valrico Republican Representative Jake Raburn wants to prohibit new CRAs from forming. And prevent existing groups from starting new projects after October 2017.
“The projects that are happening inside these CRAs, the cities could do them without a CRA,” Raburn said.
But local officials from Miami to Pensacola disagree, and they’re coming to the capitol to defend CRAs. Here’s Town Manager Jim McCroskey of Greenville, the proud home of Ray Charles, population 817.
“There’s not a dime of state money in CRAs. They’re fiscally neutral,” McCroskey said.
But lawmakers aren’t convinced CRAs are working. They want agency officials to report economic impact data and do ethics training. Jeff Burton leads the CRA in the city of Palmetto and says he’s open to those reforms.
“Do we need to make CRAs more accountable? More transparent? More ethical? Absolutely! We should do that with every body of government in the state of Florida and in the United States,” Burton said.
But Representative Joe Geller, a Dania Beach Democrat, says the ethical issues don’t warrant phasing out the programs entirely.
“I really would like to see that provision on no new CRAs replaced by something that might say ‘no new CRAs unless!’ And let’s put out some conditions and if we need to change the basis for establish one that’s fine. But this is a useful tool that can accomplish some things,” Geller said.
The bill sponsors say they’re open to changing the language, but advocates are running out of time. The bill has one more committee stop before it heads to the House floor.