Lawmakers Pushing 'Nuclear Option' To Gut CRAs

Mar 8, 2017

Florida lawmakers are considering shutting down community redevelopment agencies, citing reports of misuse of public money. Supporters are hoping to strike a compromise, before the Legislature kills CRAs outright.

Downtown Tallahassee's Cascades Park was funded in part with Community Redevelopment Agency money.
Credit Bike Tallahassee / http://biketallahassee.com/img/cascades-trail.jpg

Community Redevelopment Agencies work with local governments to improve blighted neighborhoods. They fund better roads, sidewalks, affordable housing units and parks, to improve underserved areas. Some projects are wildly popular, like Cascades Park in downtown Tallahassee. What was once an abandoned brownfield is now a community hub with trails, rolling hills, and an open air amphitheater. It’s a favorite spot for families and lunchtime walkers. Business analyst Anna Carradine works remotely, and often brings her laptop here.

“I think it’s a nice place for people to come out and just be outside in nature and really enjoy the weather,” Carradine said.

But just down the hill from Cascades Park sit long-empty warehouses and storefronts. Critics say the CRA should fund more projects in areas like this, instead of in the trendy All Saints District a mile away.

Reports of mismanagement are spurring Valrico Republican Representative Jake Raburn to re-examine the agencies.

“In the CRA process, we’re actually taking away some of the local control from counties,” Raburn said.

While some CRA boards are made up of local elected officials, they’re not held to the same standards as city or county commissions. Critics say they’re redundant, and that local governments do the same work with more transparency. Raburn referenced a recent survey of CRAs in the state.

“Ninety-seven percent of those that responded said that similar projects could be funded by local government entities such as cities or counties. Ninety-seven percent. And those are the board members of the current active CRAs,” Raburn said.

Raburn is sponsoring a bill that would require more budget oversight and ethics training for board members. And CRA supporters are open to that. They believe the agencies are doing their job: building the environment that fosters business and community investment. Thomas Hawkins represents the planning organization 1000 Friends of Florida.

“We don’t have a free market for most infrastructure. There’s not a free market for putting gin new water pipes or sewer pipes or roads. These are public infrastructure. And we’ve got to have public agencies that make these investments. So CRAs fill that gap,”Hawkins said.

Supporters say the projects ultimately add property value, which in turn increases tax revenues. But opponent lawmakers aren’t satisfied. Raburn’s House Bill 13 would effectively kill CRAs. It would prevent new agencies from forming, and prohibit existing groups from funding new projects after October 2017. Bill Peebles represents the Florida Redevelopment Association.

“This is a nuclear option. That’s a death knell for these things. And I think it will have a dramatic and a negative impact in most of your districts,” Peebles said.

Some lawmakers are defending the programs, particularly those who served in local governments. But despite some reservations, the plan passed its first committee stop Wednesday. The Senate has not yet taken up the companion bill.