Stricter requirements on CRA's gets 'no vote' in Senate committee - Florida Politics

Stricter requirements on CRA’s gets ‘no vote’ in Senate committee

A controversial bill placing stricter requirements on community redevelopment agencies (CRA’s) received a “no vote” in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development on Tuesday. Moments later, it was temporarily postponed, technically keeping it alive.

Barely.

The Community Redevelopment Act of 1969 authorized cities and counties to create agencies to direct money into slums and blighted areas. They can’t set tax rates but can use the year-over-year increase in tax revenue to fund projects meant to improve the neighborhood. But Brandon Republican Tom Lee, who is sponsoring the bill (SB 1770) in the Florida Senate, said that there was a change in the law in 2002, and CRA’s were broadened to include all types of economic activities.

Citing a report from the auditor general in 2015, Lee said that he found that many CRA’s were using their funds in a manner that wasn’t consistent with the original act. And he read from a grand jury report in 2015 that found several examples of mismanagement of Miami-Dade’s CRA, such as spending money on pet projects for the agency’s board members. The report said CRAs were in danger of becoming slush funds.

The bill is different than it’s House companion, sponsored by Valrico Republican Jake Raburn (HB 13) which would go much further. His bill calls for an end to all CRA’s, and a phase out of existing ones. But fellow members of the committee, as well as members from the public, all said it went too far. It was fiercely opposed by mayors and officials representing cities and counties. Last week, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman held a news conference last week saying that the legislation would harm efforts with South St. Pete’s CRA.

Lee’s bill would have required that CRA use the same procurement process as the creating county or municipality. It also required commissioners of CRA’s to comply with ethics training requirements that elected officials already must go through. An amendment that Lee proposed would require a three/fifths vote of the governing body to create new CRA, as opposed to a simple majority.

“Some of these CRA’s around the state are an absolute embarrassment to me as a public official, and as someone who really believes that there ought to be an opportunity to direct some of this revenue into blighted areas to help improve the living conditions of the people  who live there,” said Lee.

Legislators from both parties on the committee sharply questioned Lee about the bill, prompting him to say that they shouldn’t confuse his bill with the House proposal to kill CRA’s.

Naples Republican Kathleen Passidomo asked Lee of the 219 CRA’s currently operating in Florida, how many were abusing the public trust?

Lee said he didn’t know the exact amount, and said that there were a number of CRA’s that were doing good work. He said he didn’t understand the objection to a new level of good governance.

“If this bill was just about accountability and transparency, I think we would be working with President Lee to address those issues, “ said David Cruz with the Florida League of Cities. “Unfortunately I think this bill goes far beyond that.and makes it to point where it would very difficult for our CRA’s to continue existing and continuing the mission that is very important to our local cities.”

“Your bill has a lot of good stuff in it,” said Pompano Beach Democrat Perry Thurston. “However, I’m coming from a community that at times is difficult getting financing in the areas that we’re talking about.” Thurston said a better vehicle for addressing the issues with CRA’s would be through the Legislative Auditing Committee.

Thurston called that a better targeted approach, as opposed to the “shotgun” approach that he felt the bill aimed for.

The House bill will be addressed at Wednesday’s Government Accountability meeting that begins at 8 a.m.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.
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