Two state lawmakers from Tampa Bay want to change the way some special taxing districts are run in the state.
Bills filed by state Senator Tom Lee (R-Brandon) and state Representative Jake Raburn (R-Valrico) would place new regulations on community redevelopment agencies (CRAs). These agencies funnel tax dollars back into neighborhoods - many of which are impoverished.
There are currently 222 active CRAs across Florida, including in Tampa, Lakeland and St. Petersburg.
While reinvigorating the economy in blighted neighborhoods is a fairly uncontroversial goal, Lee said these organizations many times act without the kind of oversight other city agencies normally would.
“What we’re really trying to say with the Senate bill is that if you’re going to have a CRA, then you need to comply with some of the best practices – financial management, auditing, procurement processes, lobbying – the kind of good governance structure the cities that created these CRAs are probably already operating under,” he said.
The companion bills in the state legislature are, in part, a response to the negative press CRAs have garnered.
In February, a Miami-Dade County Grand Jury filed a report saying it discovered instances of community redevelopment agency funds being used for “pet projects of the elected officials” who sit on their boards and warned the agencies could be used as “slush funds.”
The Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency is also at the center of a public corruption investigation by the FBI.
Senator Lee specifically pointed to the alleged political corruption and kickbacks surrounding the Tallahassee CRA as an example of why stricter reporting and oversight measure are needed.
“If that’s where people's money is being spent, then low-income people who are living in these blighted areas are the victims of a bait-and-switch.
Both the House and Senate bills would force local CRAs to give more information to state officials, including performance data, number of projects started and the amount of money spent on affordable housing.
The two bills differ, however, in how they see the future of these types of agencies.
House Bill 17, filed by Raburn, outlines a process for phasing out CRAs and would prohibit the creation of new agencies unless approved by the state legislature. Senate Bill 432, filed by Lee, does not eliminate community redevelopment agencies, but would prohibit certain types of spending and requires non-elected officials be put on agency boards.
The Florida League of Cities, an organization that lobbies on behalf of cities, is opposing the bills.
David Cruz is assistant general counsel for the League. He said the group is in favor of the increased reporting and audit requirements, but opposes any attempt to get rid of community redevelopment agencies altogether.
“With elections at a local level, our city leaders are replaced quite frequently, so it’s very difficult to look at an area with a long term approach,” Cruz said. “Community redevelopment organizations are looking at slum and blight with a focused mission.”
Cruz also said CRAs allow cities the flexibility to address issues in neighborhoods where conditions are rapidly changing.
“There’s often instances where our CRAs partner with non-profit organizations to address community-wide or emerging issues,” he said. “It looks like, under the language of Senate Bill 432, that kind of practice would be prohibited. That’s an instance where flexibility would be handicapped.”
House Bill 17 passed the House Government Accountability committee in November and will be voted on when the state House of Representatives begins session January 9. Senate Bill 432 still needs the approval of three more committees.