Hallandale freezes payments for city development, jobs programs citing waste & fraud

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach City Manager Roger Carlton

Hallandale Beach City Manager Roger Carlton has ordered what could be a multi-million dollar freeze on all payments under two city jobs and business development programs, saying they “have lost their way.”

Carlton acted about what he said was “waste” and possible fraud weeks before a report by county investigators became public last week that accused City Commissioner Anthony Sanders of failing to disclose payments he received from a local community group awarded city funds, including money under the two programs, with his backing.

In a June 5 memorandum obtained by Florida Bulldog, Carlton, who was appointed city manager by a new reform-minded city commission majority, expressed outrage about the flawed city programs and public apathy about them.

“I am angry about this situation,” Carlton wrote. “… It is extremely disappointing that there is no outrage in the community about these programs. No demands for reform have been publicly made to date. No complaints regarding the fact that public funds, which should have been utilized effectively to build capacity of local contractors, or help individuals find work can be found.”

In a preliminary July 7 report, the Broward Inspector General’s office said Commissioner Sanders “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” when he “failed to disclose payments” made to him, other family members and his church, Higher Vision Ministries, by a jobs development group, Palms Community Action Coalition (PCAC) during a three-year period. Sanders voted to give PCAC three grants and backed seven funding agreements under the Community Benefit Program (CBP), resulting in the PCAC receiving a total of $893,320 from 2013 through 2015, according to the report.

Carlton’s directive was aimed at the CBP and the Hallandale Opportunity Project (HOP), the city’s administrative arm created to monitor job development, including placement and training, and the purchase and use of local subcontractors and residents, by firms that won contracts. Those gaining contracts under the program pledged a percentage of the contract to hire residents and subcontractors and/or earmark funds to train and create jobs for residents.

“It’s not a pretty outcome,” Carlton said in a brief interview with the Florida Bulldog, adding “millions of dollars” are at stake. The city manager also said the city will “recover as much as possible” of any misused funds.

“I have directed the Finance Department and the Capital Improvement Division to cease making any payments to consultants, contractors, design/engineering firms and/or individuals under the CBP/HOP program until a complete review … can be completed,” Carlton said in his memo.

Exception to freeze for a handful

“The only exception to this payment freeze,” he wrote, “will be to those individuals and firms who are doing actual physical work or are in a verifiable training program at a job site, and who are qualified participants due to their employment and residency status.”

Jeremy Earle, assistant city manager, has been placed in control of the troubled programs and was directed to reform them. The city’s review of the programs, Carlton’s memo said, “will include an analysis of waste, fraud and abuse.” It added, “Without equivocation, there has been waste. Fraud and abuse will be determined.”

“If necessary,” Carlton stated, “the results of our review will be brought to the appropriate authorities for their determination.”

In his memo, Carlton said the city must retool the programs – not terminate them — and make them effective by using “best practices across the country… We must also eliminate providers that are not contributing to program goals.”

The new controversy surrounding the Hallandale’s CBP is similar in some aspects to that involving the city’s troubled Community Redevelopment Agency, which came under investigation by the Broward Inspector General Office five years ago. The findings: The city’s CRA lacked effective city oversight, agency funds were mixed with city funds, a good deal of spending lacked documentation, and policies changed frequently or were not adhered to. The IG found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures from 2007 to 2012, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and nonprofits.

The IG’s new probe – as reported by Florida Bulldog in June 2016 – was already underway when Carlton took over as city manager on Feb. 6, 2017.  He didn’t like what he found surrounding the CBP and HOP.

“During the past six years, the CBP and the HOP programs have lost their way for a complex variety of reason,” Carlton said in the memo. Successful bidders for city contracts “have contributed to the CBP and HOP at a rate which has grown so rapidly since the recovery of the Great Recession, that there are not enough small contractors of unemployed/underemployed workers in the city of Hallandale Beach to feed into the program.”

The programs ran afoul, he stated, because:

  • Program personnel for both the city and companies awarded contracts were hired often without a competitive process or without demonstrating the ability met the goals of the programs.
  • City monitoring staffers were not given “uniform standards or criteria… to follow” and were not included in negotiations to understand CBP provisions of each contract; and sanctions for failing to comply were less severe than the cost of complying.
  • “City administrators did not demand the excellence and fair-dealing required for the effective use of public funds. That is our fault, and the city administration will resolve these issues going forward.”
  • “The city commission also needs to shoulder some of the responsibility for the difficulties in this program. The rumors, confrontations, accusations and innuendos regarding abuses in the CBP/HOP are not new. When my predecessor brought a series of reforms on October 19, 2016, these reforms were approved by the city commission in a 3/2 vote…, but were not made a priority. The turmoil that swirled around city hall at the time, in part, allowed the need to implement the reforms as a priority of the organization to go unmet.”

In its July 7 report, the Broward IG also stated that Commissioner Sanders solicited and received contributions from developments seeking to do business with the city under the CBP program during the period of the investigation.

The IG report revealed some possible payment discrepancies that could receive closer review by the city:

  • PCAC had an agreement to pay $1,000 a month to Higher Vision to transport job trainees to Sheridan Technical College in Hollywood, with payments totaling $31,000. But the report said no services were provided after May 16, 2015. It also said the city provided free bus passes to the trainees to get to the school.
  • The city provided $17,000 from October 2014 to September 2015 for PCAC to send 10 women to Sheridan Technical to receive training as nurse aides. But six of them dropped out.

Report: Hallandale commissioner Anthony Sanders “engaged in pattern of misconduct”

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach Commissioner Anthony Sanders and Jessica Sanders

A preliminary report by the Broward Inspector General’s Office says Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Anthony Sanders “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” when he “failed to disclose payments” made to him and other family members by a community group which Sanders voted to give thousands of dollars in city grants and other funding.

The July 7 report obtained by Florida Bulldog also said that Palms Community Action Coalition Inc. (PCAC) made contractual payments to Higher Vision Ministries, where Sanders is the pastor and the only paid full-time employee. The report adds that Sanders solicited and received contributions for the church from developers seeking to do business with the city.

PCAC is a Hallandale Beach-based nonprofit organization that provides job training and community development services to local residents.

The various payments occurred during a three-year period in which Sanders voted in favor of PCAC, according to the report.  “Commissioner Sanders continued taking a salary from his employer, continued accepting significant payments from PCAC on behalf of his employer, failed to abstain from voting, failed to disclose the voting conflicts to the voting body either verbally or in writing, directly and indirectly solicited developers to give contributions to his employer, and accepted those contributions on behalf of his employer,” the IG report stated.

The report said the Inspector General plans to refer the office’s findings about Sanders to the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Hallandale Beach city commission “for whatever action those entities deem appropriate.”

“We are filing against Commissioner Sanders an ethics complaint charging a violation of the Broward code of ethics to be tried by an administrative hearing officer,” the report said.

If sustained, the allegations would violate provisions of state, county and municipal codes that prohibit elected officials from receiving anything of value to influence their vote, take any action that provides undue benefit to family members and require refraining from voting to avoid conflict and disclosures in such cases.

The report apparently stems from an investigation opened by the IG’s office, as reported by the Florida Bulldog in June 2016, involving the city’s Community Benefit Program (CBP). The program requires contributions from private developers vying for city projects over $1 million to help fund recruitment, training and hiring of city residents and purchasing from local vendors.

PCAC partnerships

According to the IG documents, it was Sanders who “initially promoted the idea that local workers should be included in city development.” The city requirements made it difficult for developers to win a city contract without a program partner, which had to be named in bidding documents. The IG said PCAC was frequently designated as “partner” in bid documents.

The Bulldog story said investigators were looking for voting conflicts in their review of city commission and Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) minutes. The inquiry came three years after the IG found the city “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds. Sanders was investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing in the IG probe four years ago, but did not escape criticism in the latest probe.

Sanders did not return calls seeking comment on the Inspector General’s latest assertions.

The new investigation of Hallandale Beach covered a period from January 2013 through December 2015. During that time city commissioners, including Sanders, approved direct grants to PCAC three times and development contracts that included the group as a “benefit plan partner” seven times, according to the report.

The city requires companies seeking contracts above $1 million to set aside funds for things like job training programs.

The 10 grants and development contracts ultimately “benefited PCAC a total of approximately $893,320,” the report said. Funds collected from successful bidders were later transferred to PCAC, amounting to $695,870; the balance came from city grants.

The report outlined the connection between the commissioner and the community group. “The OIG [Office of Inspector General] substantiated that PCAC made contractual payments to Higher Vision Ministries…, that PCAC employed his [Sanders’] son; and that PCAC also made other consulting and employment payments to the commissioner’s wife and another son.”

Payments to Sanders’s wife

According to the report, PCAC paid Sanders’ wife, Jessica, for consulting and grant writing and paid two of Sanders’ adult sons for part-time employment. Jessica Sanders had been involved with PCAC in 2011. “We found that PCAC directly paid the commissioner’s immediate family a total of approximately $7,588 between January 2013 and December 2015,” the report stated.

In addition, the report said that PCAC made monthly $1,000 payments to Higher Vision Ministries to transport job trainees to classes. But, it added, neither the church nor PCAC documented any rides. The IG said it determined PCAC paid Higher Vision approximately $27,000 for 613 miles of transportation service – or about $44 for “each accountable mile” under the agreement.

“In all,” the report said, “PCAC paid Commissioner Sanders’s employer and immediate family a total of approximately $38,688 during this three-year period.”

“Following one of Commissioner Sanders’s votes in November 2013 for a Hallandale Beach multi-million public workers project that included PCAC as a community benefit plan partner, PCAC paid an extra (that is, over and above $1,000 per month) $2,000 to Higher Vision Ministries with a memo notation of Donation/Pastor’s Appreciation,” the report stated.

In another instance, the report said, “…following city commission approval for direct city funding to PCAC between October and November of the following year [2014], it [PCAC] made extra payments totaling another $2,100 to Higher Vision Ministries.”

“As described in this report,” the IG report stated, “the commissioner was well aware of the nature of these conflicting relationships and their bearing on the propriety of his voting. Yet, Commissioner Sanders admitted that he did not disclose these relationships or payments to the public at any time during the period he voted to benefit PCAC.”

The IG report said investigators “also established that, while they were at city hall for a commission meeting involving one of the development votes, Commissioner Sanders solicited one of the project awardees to make a direct contribution to the Higher Vision Ministries church, who then asked a second developer to do the same. Their companies’ two donations to the church totaled $1,100.”

 

Hallandale Beach halts advertising in local newspaper where mayor is a columnist

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

A column by Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper in the Sun Times

Hallandale Beach city commissioners have pulled the plug on city advertising in the local Sun Times newspaper featuring articles by Mayor Joy Cooper that drew fire from commission colleagues as “propaganda” for the mayor.

Cooper used the platform regularly before and after the weekly newspaper received a favorable — and controversial — $50,000 loan from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). The Sun Times, according to city documents, has been paid nearly $400,000 in city advertising to publicize events since 2003, most of the money coming after the loan was made during the 2008-2009 budget year.

The Florida Bulldog published a story about the loan, which later became a matter of interest to the Broward Inspector General’s Office in its 2012 probe. While the IG stated the Hallandale Beach CRA had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars, tallied $2.2 million in questionable expenditures and made inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, there was no finding of wrongdoing in the city’s Sun Times loan.

“The whole thing is a propaganda paper for the mayor,” said Commissioner Michele Lazarow, who moved at the Dec. 7 meeting to halt funding immediately.

While not voted on, the measure gained consensus support from the new majority of the five-member commission, and city staff said it would not place any more advertisements in the newspaper. Cooper had left the meeting before the item came forward.

In the past, the newspaper had the support of Cooper and commissioners who backed her. Lazarow, Vice Mayor Keith London, a long-time Sun Times critic, and newly elected Commissioner Anabelle Taub successful pushed the item to halt further advertising.

“The Sun Times is the mayor’s pulpit or podium for her to spin the truth,” Lazarow said at the meeting. “It has become a political rag during the political season.” Making matters worse, she added, the newspaper was unfair by not accepting or allowing “rebuttal.”

“I’m appalled that city funds go to the Sun Times,” Taub said at the meeting. “We should not fund the mayor’s political propaganda and personal vendettas and attacks.”

Taub said she was incensed during her recent election campaign when the Sun Times printed personal information about her that “could be used to commit fraud on me.”

“They have a one-sided view of city hall,” said London, adding that a reporter from the newspaper rarely attends a city commission meeting.

Mayor: ‘I will continue writing’

“They are entitled to their opinion,” Cooper told a reporter in response to the criticism from her commission colleagues. “I report on city business. I will continue writing. Everything I write is edited by an editor and it’s their choice to use it.”

Cooper began writing for the Sun Times in 2003, the year she became mayor. Her opinion piece last week was about Dr. Martin Luther King and political protest.

 

Sun Times officials said they were unfazed by the funding cutoff. “The commission has every right to do so,” said Craig Farquhar, president of the South Florida Digest, which publishes the Sun Times. As for the accusation that the newspaper has been a forum for the mayor’s propaganda, he said, “That’s their political opinion.”

The money paid by the city to the Sun Times, Farquhar added, “was to promote city events.”

City records showed that between 2003 and 2008, the city paid the Sun Times about $32,000 for advertising – an average of about $6,400 a year. But the relationship changed the following year.

That’s when the Sun Times became the first city business to receive a loan under a new program, funded through the CRA, to retain and to assist firms having financial difficulties. It received a 10-year $50,000 loan, with half of it forgiven, to be paid at two percent interest; the loan balance of approximately $7,500 is expected to be paid off in July 2019.

What raised questions about the newspaper’s financial problems was that Farquhar and another official of the newspaper, Cecile Hines, were each paid an average of over $200,000 in 2007 and in 2008, the years before the Sun Times received the city loan.

City advertising in the Sun Times, after the loan approval, also began to escalate. From 2008-2009 until the end of 2016, the city paid the newspaper $362,929, averaging more than $45,000 yearly during the past eight years, according to city documents.

 

New majority on Hallandale commission wants to know: Where did CRA millions go?

Update: Jan. 23 – Hallandale Beach city commissioners Monday night gave initial approval to hiring an accounting firm to conduct a forensic audit of the city’s long troubled Community Redevelopment Agency.

Sitting as directors of the CRA, the commission designated the firm of Stanley I. Foodman, CPA & Advisor, to work with newly appointed City Manager Roger Carlton to determine the audit’s scope and cost. Carlton will present their proposal to commissioners for approval at a meeting next month.

Vice Mayor Keith London, who presented the item that won unanimous approval, said the audit will determine the CPA fund balances dating back to 2012, when a CRA fund was first established. The audit will also review prior land purchases by the CRA that forced $7.4 million in cuts from the CRA budget.

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org  

The Hallandale Beach City Commission. From left to right: Anthony Sanders, Anabelle Taub, Mayor Joy Cooper, Vice Mayor Keith London, Michele Lazarow

The new majority on the Hallandale Beach City Commission will seek the first-ever forensic audit of all expenditures by its troubled Community Redevelopment Agency for the past five years, including finding out why $7.4 million had to be cut to balance the agency’s budget this fiscal year.

Current Vice Mayor Keith London and Commissioner Michele Lazarow had been frustrated in seeking such an audit by the previous commission majority headed by Mayor Joy Cooper.

The November city commission election resulted in London and Lazarow gaining the backing of new City Commissioner Anabelle Taub. Cooper was reelected, but failed to gain another commissioner to back her and her ally, Commissioner Anthony Sanders. They’re expected to vote on the audit, aimed at determining whether any wrongdoing occured, later this month.

“Let’s see where the money went,” London said. “We are going to get to the bottom of this.”

The new commission trio already has flexed its power in a remake of city hall.

It was responsible for the ousters of City Manager Daniel Rosemond and City Attorney Lynn Whitfield, and replacing them with long-time South Florida government administrator, Roger Carlton, and a new city attorney, Jennifer Merino. Merino was general counsel for the Broward Inspector General’s Office, which investigated and severely criticized the spending practices of the city’s CRA four years ago.

“It’s time to clean house of the city manager and the city commission … the collusion,” Lazarow said.

Now the new commission majority will be seeking answers about the spending of the much-troubled CRA.

‘We need to find out’

“We need a full forensic audit [of the CRA],” London said. “We need to find out about the $7.4 million, and we need to know what we have left.”

London was referring to last August when city commissioners, who are also directors of the CRA, were forced to cut $7.4 million from the proposed $25.9-million CRA budget for this year after being told by the city administration that the agency had counted land purchases by the agency as cash.

At that meeting, then City Manager Rosemond said an “adjustment” had to be made — the city commission had no choice but to approve the budget cut.

Prior to that, London said the city manager had given commissioners assurances that cash was available to the CRA, only to learn that the value of the city-purchased land by the CRA cannot be counted as cash.

Both London and Lazarow lobbied for a forensic audit of expenditures at that time, but lacked a third vote. The commission instead voted to seek a forensic audit that delved only into CRA land purchases.

Making matters worse, London said, Rosemond later came back and told commissioners that he was unable to engage any firm willing to conduct the forensic audit of land purchases — and, therefore, no firm was hired.

That all changed, however, with the November city commission election. Lazarow was reelected, along with newcomer Taub. London was not up for reelection.

Now in the majority, London said he wants audit to cover CRA spending back to 2012, the first year city commissioners established a separate funding account for the agency.

“We need to know what we have,” he said.

“We have to inquire about the $7.4 million,” said Lazarow, adding she plans to back London’s request for a forensic audit when he brings it up for a commission vote. Taub, who was not available for comment, is also expected to back the request.

City co-mingled CRA funds

Prior to 2012, the city had co-mingled CRA funds with city funds. That practice started in 1996, when the CRA was established under state law. The agency has been funded through property tax increases in the CRA boundaries.

It was only when the Broward Inspector General’s Office began its probe and issued a scathing report that some changes were made, including separating CRA-collected funds from other city tax revenues. Florida Bulldog had reported about questionable loans to local businesses and land purchases through the CRA nearly a year before IG investigators descended on city hall in April, 2012 seeking records and questioning officials as the probe became public.

After a 14-month investigation, the Inspector General’s Office in 2013 stated the Hallandale Beach CRA had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in funds between 2007 and 2012. It found $2.2 million in questionable expenditures by the CRA, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.

Before and after that report, London asked for a forensic audit of agency funds, but was outvoted by his commission colleagues.

Mayor Cooper denied the city had done anything wrong. The city commission majority at that time then ousted the agency’s recently appointed CRA executive director, Alvin Jackson, who won praise by the Inspector General for efforts to improve the CRA.

The city commission, over the objections of London, placed the agency once again under the direct management of the city manager. Except for Jackson’s short tenure, city managers have had full control of the CRA since 1996, during which the agency failed to keep adequate records, including changing loan and grant policies in violation of existing rules.

Both London and Lazarow said they are pleased with the new appointees, in particular Merino, 36.

“She has knowledge of our city,” said London, referring to Merino’s work with the agency that investigated the city’s CRA.

“Merino has a history [with the city],” Lazarow said. “She has been watching our meetings.”

Carlton, 69, has held several key positions with public agencies, among them: Miami Beach city manager (1992-1995), executive assistant Miami-Dade county manager (1977-1981).

Broward’s Inspector General probes Hallandale Beach CRA – again

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper is flanked on the left by Commissioners Keith London and Michele Lazarow and on the right by Commissioners Bill Julian and Anthony Sanders. The commission also sits at the city CRA's board of directors

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper is flanked on the left by Commissioners Keith London and Michele Lazarow and on the right by Commissioners Bill Julian and Anthony Sanders. The commission also sits at the city CRA’s board of directors

The Broward County Inspector General’s Office has launched another inquiry into Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency, three years after finding the city “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.

The first probe led to reform and a grand theft charge against the director of a local cultural program for misspending CRA grant money. What triggered the new probe, however, isn’t known.

“I cannot comment,” said Inspector General John W. Scott, who leads the independent watchdog agency that investigates allegations of fraud, corruption and gross mismanagement at the county and Broward’s 31 municipalities. He’s asked the city and the CRA to submit the requested information by July 1.

A key focus of the inquiry, however, is the city’s Community Benefit Program (CBP). The program seeks to encourage private development and city-funded projects to recruit, train and hire city residents and local vendors.

Tuesday’s letter to the city from the Inspector General’s Office requested a variety of CRA documents from Jan. 1, 2013 to the present. They include: all voting conflict memos submitted by city commissioners, who also serve for directors of the CRA; the minutes of all city commission and CRA meetings; a list of all bid solicitations with a Community Benefit Program component as well as documentation from vendors identifying specific partners to be engaged in the program.

In addition, Inspector General Scott’s office requested documents related to two groups that received grants from the city and the CRA: the Palms Community Action Coalition and the South Florida Educational Development Center.

The latest inquiry set off another disagreement among city officials.

“While the CBP has good intentions,’’ said City Commissioner Keith London, “it is my belief the program has been hijacked and abused by insiders who have used their power and influence to steer contracts and jobs to unqualified persons and companies for no other reason than their political connections.”

London said residents should “review the voting record of each commissioner who has blindly supported the CBP policy, every CBP expenditure and bid sheet awarding millions of taxpayer dollars to firms whose major qualification was their connection to city hall.”

But Mayor Joy Cooper, who has differed bitterly with London in the past, played down the significance of the IG’s records request.

We have been in compliance”

Cooper cited the city’s Hallandale Opportunity Program that monitors grants and contracts. She said the program’s monthly reports have indicated compliance with city provisions, including by the Community Benefit Program. “We have tightened up” controls over grants and contracts, Cooper said. “We have been in compliance.”

City Manager Daniel Rosemond added the same internal group has monitored city funds going to South Florida Educational Development Center and there have been “no performance issues.”

Rosemond likewise sought to downplay the significance of the Inspector General’s inquiry, observing that he merely asked for some records.

“This is not an investigation,” Rosemond said in an interview, adding “I don’t believe there is anything substantive” to the inquiry, but rather that the IG has received some information and “has a fiduciary responsibility to look at it.”

In an email to commissioners, Rosemond said, “The nature of the [IG] request appears to center around the city’s Community Benefit Program, its administration and recipients.”

Palms Community Action Coalition members could not be reached; South Florida Educational Development Center members did not return calls for comment.

Palms Community Action Coalition (PCAC) is a group attempting to prevent and reduce crime, drug abuse and gang activity. The coalition came under scrutiny during the Broward Inspector General’s previous probe – although there was no finding of wrongdoing. Under a three-year agreement with the city, PCAC has received a total of $306,000.

According to state documents, the South Florida Educational Development Center, established six years ago, is a non-profit group that provides educational job training for youth and adults in underserved areas. It received $45,000 last year and again this year, and will receive the same amount next year under a three-year agreement ending Sept. 30, 2017.

City Commissioner Michele Lazarow said she and Commissioner London have questioned the effectiveness of the Community Benefits Program. In some instances, she said, city funds appeared to be going to only a few groups. There is also concern that some firms receiving city contracts may be having trouble fulfilling promised job slots because there are not enough qualified workers in the city.

A city ‘investigated twice’

“I wonder how many other Broward County cities have been investigated twice,” said Lazarow.

Commissioner Anthony Sanders could not be reached for comment. Vice Mayor Bill Julian said he could not comment because he hadn’t seen the IG’s letter.

In March 2013, after a 14-month investigation, the Inspector General’s Office found $2.2 million in questionable expenditures by the Hallandale Beach CRA between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.

The city, the report stated, improperly spent $416,000 in CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries. The spending, which was not always documented, was often done at what amounted to the whim of former City Managers Mike Good and Mark Antonio, the report said.

The Hallandale Beach CRA, like other similar agencies in other municipalities, was established under a state law that allows the agency to raise and spend a large portion of increased property tax dollars collected within the CRA’s boundaries on projects aimed at eliminating slum and blight. Nearly 50 percent of those funds come from Broward County, which approved establishment of the agency.

While city officials contended that all expenditures were permissible under state law, the Broward IG cited in its report a 2010 opinion by Florida’s Attorney General that CRA expenditures must be connected to “brick and mortar” capital projects.

At the conclusion of the last investigation, Hallandale Beach officials denied wrongdoing and challenged the authority of the Inspector General to oversee the city’s CRA.

Nevertheless, the city ultimately made changes as a result of the probe that included updating its CRA development plans and adopting procedures for awarding grants. The city also announced plans to repay the CRA for funds used for parks outside the CRA boundaries.

The IG’s finding also led Broward prosecutors to charge Palm Center for the Arts (PCA) director Deborah Brown with grand theft in May 2014. The IG reported finding probable cause to believe that Brown spent nearly $5,000 in CRA funds on herself and her family. The funds were designated by the city in 2010 to send children on a trip to Washington, D.C.

The criminal case remains pending in Broward Circuit Court, with the next hearing set for Sept. 22.

A plan takes shape to fix Miami-Dade’s CRAs

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

FAU professor Frank Schnidman and Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella L. Cava

FAU professor Frank Schnidman and Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella L. Cava

Miami-Dade commissioners would take greater control of community redevelopment agencies under a proposal that would tighten oversight and reduce funding, yet also require many CRAs to set aside dollars for much-needed affordable housing they have yet to provide.

FloridaBulldog.org has obtained a copy of a resolution that’s making its way through county agencies. It is to be presented to Miami-Dade’s Economic Prosperity Committee on April 14 and to commissioners in May. Many of its remedies follow recommendations contained in February’s Miami-Dade Grand Jury report that found operating deficiencies among the 14 CRAS operating in the county, including little effort to develop affordable housing.

The proposal, however, is drawing criticism from a local CRA expert.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough,” said Frank Schnidman, a Florida Atlantic University professor with extensive knowledge of CRAs and how they should operate.

If adopted, the measures would apply to both new CRAs and existing ones that seek to extend or amend their 30-year terms.

Schnidman is opposed to the county granting CRAs any extensions unless they can demonstrate that they’ve been effective in their state-mandated mission of ridding “slum and blight” from within their limited boundaries. He also believes that newly approved CRAs should not receive county tax-increment funding. TIF funds, as they are known, are property tax dollars earmarked to some CRAs from increases in assessed land values within their designated district.

Extending the life of CRAs to finance new or existing projects transforms them into “economic development agencies,” whose purpose is other than eliminating slum and blight, said Schnidman. And CRAs already have demonstrated they have no desire to create much-needed affordable housing for poorer residents, he added.

Nevertheless, discussions are under way to extend the terms of two Miami CRAs – Omni, which hasn’t built any affordable housing, and Southeast Overtown Park West, which has – in order to back both proposed and existing projects.

If extended, the proposed Miami Marriott Marquis Hotel and Expo Center, the Miami Streetcar and Baylink could expect to receive CRA funding for debt service and/or operating and capital expenses. The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, the Perez Art Museum Miami and the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center stand to receive CRA dollars to cover similar expenses.

Most of those projects are “for the rich,” said Schnidman.

‘No real teeth’

The proposed county resolution would “have some effect but it has no real teeth,” Schnidman said. He noted, for instance, that while it seeks to address affordable housing, it would not require existing CRAs without a housing plan to adopt one. He was also critical because the proposal would continue to allow CRAs to issue bonds to support projects without voter approval.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella L. Cava proffered the resolution.

“I have created a proposal to deal with slum and blight and not just for developers,” she said. “We can’t do anything that is in violation of state law…state law does not require housing.

Cava noted that her resolution provides that there be a finding of “necessity” for approval of new CRAs, added she was interested in Schnidman’s suggestion that CRAs should have to show they have addressed slum and blight before they can get an extension or amendment to their term.

The Miami-Dade Grand Jury issued a scathing report in February about the operations of 14 CRAs that exist under an agreement with the County Commission. The grand jury said CRAs skirted the law’s intent with “overly broad interpretations” of definitions and requirements, by paying for inappropriate things like “fairs, carnivals and community entertainment;” and squandering “… large amounts of taxpayer dollars on what appeared to be pet projects of the elected officials.” Likewise, CRAS allocated a significant amount of funds “on salaries, benefits and other administrative costs.”

But the grand jury’s harshest criticism was aimed at the failure of CRAS to provide affordable housing in the blighted areas they were supposed to assist.

“Our investigation uncovered large scale spending on projects that did not address slum, blight or affordable housing … Evidence presented to us indicates that affordable housing is not a priority for many of the existing CRAs … (and) is almost non-existent.”

County leverage

The proposed resolution would declare the county’s intention to include the new provisions as a condition for approval for any new CRAs and for existing ones seeking extensions. The county has considerable leverage because it provides nearly half the tax-increment funds collected by the 14 CRAs: this year, $32 million in all.

Among the resolutions key provisions is a requirement that new and some existing CRAs have a housing component and a budget that annually includes funds for low, moderate and workforce housing. Existing CRAs without housing provisions in their plans may be able to circumvent the requirement, according to Schnidman.

In a measure aimed at widening CRA oversight, the county commission would appoint two members or designees to each CRA board. The county Inspector General’s Office would be given extensive authority to review all transactions of the CRAs, including actions that allegedly involve “fraud and/or corruption.”

CRAs also would be obliged to demonstrate the benefit of projects by holding a public hearing to consider how they will primarily benefit residents and business owners within the redevelopment area.

On the financial side, CRAs would be subject to a cap on administrative costs of 20 percent and new CRAs would not receive more than 50 percent of tax-increment collections unless commissioners approve a higher amount by a two-thirds vote.

CRA grants of $200,000 or more to community groups would have to primarily benefit residents in the redevelopment area. That would include hiring the labor force from workers within the redevelopment boundaries and allowing the county to recover funds not used for their intended purposes.

Likewise, CRAs would also be required to provide relocation assistance to individuals, families and businesses displaced by its projects. CRAs would also have to provide “one-for-one” replacement of affordable housing units they demolish, with those displaced having the right of first refusal to move back into affordable units.

Tired of problems, Fort Lauderdale audits its community redevelopment agencies

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org cralogo

Fed up with project failures, management problems and possible city overcharges, Fort Lauderdale commissioners have ordered an extensive audit of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agencies.

In a little-noted action, commissioners directed the audit of three CRAs at a conference meeting earlier this year.

The audit was triggered by the million-dollar failure of the Sixth Street Plaza project. Some commissioners expressed additional concerns about the findings of a city auditor’s report on CRAs that they said indicate the city had unfairly overcharged the CRAs for services during the past five years.

Commissioners ordered “a full audit” of the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights (NWP) Community Redevelopment Agency, the Central Beach (CB) CRA and the Central City (CC) CRA, City Auditor John Herbst said in an interview. He said the audit, now under way, may be completed in two months.

Herbst said the audit was undertaken because the city wants to get in front of the matter, knowing the Broward Inspector General’s Office has been investigating CRAs around the county for some time.

Herbst said he expects the audit to determine whether CRA spending was “in compliance with state law and CRA bylaws,” and whether the CRAs were properly managed and contracts adhered to the CRAs’ limitations.

“We want to make sure money was spent in accordance with governing legislation,” Herbst said. The audit will cover the past three years – a reasonable time period, the auditor added.

Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Robert McKinzie

Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Robert McKinzie

Herbst said the troubled Sixth Street Plaza project is a key factor in the ongoing audit. Last May, the city auditor’s office criticized the CRA for poor oversight of a taxpayer-supported office and retail plaza that was to be the centerpiece of the city’s ambitious plans to revitalize the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor.

But the 23,000-square-foot building at 900 NW Sixth St. filed for bankruptcy, jeopardizing the repayment of $1 million in taxpayer loans.

Following that finding, Vice Mayor Robert McKinzie’s staff asked Herbst in a memo to conduct “a complete audit of the day to day operations of the CRA.” Herbst said Mayor Jack Seiler and his fellow commissioners backed the call for the audit in a consensus vote during a city commission conference meeting in January.

‘Inconsistent leadership’

Herbst said the city’s CRAs have had problems because of frequent management shuffling. “There was inconsistent leadership due to transfers,” he said.

A report by his office noted that the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA, in a less-affluent area, was charged $1.7 million for city services over the past five years, while the Central Beach CRA, in a wealthier area, was charged $909,000 during that same period.

The finding upset City Commissioner Dean Trantalis, who said an “excessive amount of money is charged for administration, denying the neighborhood that is suffering blight and neglect and so much money being used for staff.”

Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis

Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis

Trantalis said he has asked City Manager Lee Feldman about correcting CRA allocation issues, but “he hasn’t been responding. We need to change the practice. We discovered that the city manager, to shore up the budget, has been attributing staff time to the CRA.”

Feldman did not respond to requests for comment before deadline after promising to make himself available for an interview.

At the city commission meeting in January, others expressed their concern about the auditor’s findings.

Minutes of the meetings say McKinzie “questioned why such a large portion of funds was allocated [to] the [Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights] CRA for administration and resources when the CRA did not have a director.”

Commissioner Bruce Roberts suggested the matter be referred to the State Attorney’s Office or some other investigative agency for a criminal probe.

“Many feel CRA funds have been drained for administrative services, and there is a lopsided disparity,” Trantalis said at the January meeting. The mayor and the city’s four commissioners also serve as directors of the CRAs.

Problems found

Herbst’s audit report mainly delved into the current fiscal year salary allocations of the two CRA offices, Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights and Central Beach. But it found problems.

“The method used to allocate personnel costs may lead to excessive General Fund expenses being allocated to the CRA, a violation of Florida Statute 163.370(3)(c),” the report stated. The state provision prohibits the tax-increment funds that CRAs receive from covering general government operating expenses unrelated to planning and carrying out a CRA plan.

The report goes on, “We determined that the Department of Sustainable Development (DSD) and the Budget Office were not able to provide adequate support for the percentages used for personnel cost allocations to/from the CRA fund and the sub-funds. Additionally, they are allocating charges to the CRA for personnel positions which are vacant for either a portion of the fiscal year or the entire fiscal year.

“The budgeted allocations are then charged to the CRA throughout the year without reconciling those estimates to actual costs incurred, resulting in an excess of allocation over actual cost,” according to the report.

The faulty allocations can negatively impact the CRAs’ ability to achieve their goals, the report aid.

The city charged the CRAs for hours city employees spent working on agency matters.

In one instance, the report said the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA was “overcharged” $30,000, which should have been charged to the Central Beach CRA. That happened after an employee was promoted from assistant to the city manager to the position of economic and business development manager in charge of the Central Beach CRA. For three months, he was paid from funds allocated to a vacant position in the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA, the report said.

A correction was later made, but “the prior overcharging was not corrected timely” and ate into how much funding was available to meet the CRA’s goals.

Since the report, the city has begun making changes.

Trantalis said in an interview that city commissioners have removed the CRAs from reporting to the Department of Sustainable Development and made them separate entities with their own managers to oversee day-to-day operations. State law requires CRAs to operate independently of other departments.

City Manager Feldman, however, will continue to function as executive director of the CRAs.

Other changes call for improved financial oversight from the city finance director and the city auditor, identifying a separate CRA funding and accounting structure, and allocating additional funds for the two CRAs to implement changes during the current fiscal year.

Fort Lauderdale to use “poor people’s money” to subsidize transit for affluent?

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

A rendering of Fort Lauderdale's proposed WAVE streetcar. Will tax dollars intended to eliminate slums be used to pay for it?

A rendering of Fort Lauderdale’s proposed WAVE streetcar. Will tax dollars intended to eliminate slums be used to pay for it?

Fort Lauderdale’s recent approval of a no-bid contract to update the plan for the troubled Northwest-Progresso-Flagler Heights Community Redevelopment Agency has raised concerns about a lack of public input amid a rush to add projects not in the current plan at the expense of community needs.

Scott Strawbridge, who serves on the CRA’s 14-member advisory board, has called for outside review of the agency after he and his colleagues were informed that City Manager Lee Feldman signed a $24,500 contract with a private firm in August to amend the current CRA plan, last updated in 2001.

Pompano Beach-based Redevelopment Management Associates LLC has already begun the first phase of the work. Under city code, the city manager has authority to enter into contracts up to $25,000, without seeking approval from the CRA board.

“The city is trying to push through a short term process that should take a longer review,” said Strawbridge, adding there needs to be more data to support any proposed changes. “I think it would be healthy for the public to understand what has been spent…There should be accountability.”

Except for one informational hearing on Sept. 23 about the Redevelopment Management firm’s study, there has been little public notice and input, Strawbridge added.

Frank Schnidman, a Florida Atlantic University professor recognized as an expert on legal issues regarding CRAs law, said state statute makes “clear if projects are not in the plan then it’s inappropriate to use tax increment” CRA funds to pay for them.

By law, the mission of CRAs is to clean up slum and blight. Schnidman said the Northeast Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA apparently is considering funding transportation projects not currently in the plan. But even if they met the legal requirements for CRA funding “they would not alleviate slum and blight…They would be using poor people’s money to subsidize transit for people living in more affluent areas.”

“This would be another manipulation of tax money,” Schnidman said, adding the funds would be better used for “affordable housing, where there is a crisis. Poor people would be left out in favor of politically favored projects, like the Wave,” a proposed streetcar system primarily servicing the downtown area.

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman

City Manager Feldman, who also serves as executive director of the CRA, and Jeremy Earle, deputy director, of the city’s Sustainable Development Office, did not respond to requests for comment.

However, city spokesman Matt Little noted in an e-mail response that the CRA budget includes funding for the WAVE, “as approved by the CRA Board.” He also said the budget may include “a line item” subsidy for the existing Sun Trolley system, if the project is contained in the Plan, but did not clarify if that was the case or not.

The CRA’s plan is being updated because it hasn’t been amended for 11 years, and changes could allow for the enhancement of transportation, provide support for community events and give the CRA Board flexibility to consider other proposals that may be presented, the spokesman said.

The concerns follow a problematic city auditor’s report in May that castigated the Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA for its poor oversight of a taxpayer-financed office and retail complex, Sixth Street Plaza, which filed for bankruptcy last spring.

“The project lacked fundamental project discipline, from risk assessment and establishing proper governance to detailed accounting of funds disbursement,” City Auditor John Herbst wrote in a cover memo to the city commission, which also sits as the CRA’s board of directors.

The city commission requested the report after FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that taxpayer loans were in jeopardy due to the forced sale of the plaza.

Strawbridge, an official with the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority, stopped short of naming the agency that should look into NPF’s spending practices. But the Broward Inspector General’s Office has kept close tabs of municipal CRAs in recent years.

Last year, for example, the Inspector General found the Margate CRA deliberately mishandled $2.7 million in funds by rolling the money over for several years without specific purposes. In 2013, it determined that the Hallandale Beach CRA had $2.2 million in questionable expenditures.

Two years ago, the Florida Auditor General cited the Hollywood Beach CRA for failing to report $36.2 million in unspent year-end funds from 2009-2010 and $34.2 million from 2010-2011. The city is now considering options that would redirect funds intended for the CRA to the city.

The proposed route of Fort Lauderdale's WAVE streetcar

The proposed route of Fort Lauderdale’s WAVE streetcar

Strawbridge said the Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA is seeking to revise the existing plan to add projects for funding consideration that are not included in its existing plan, even as the new fiscal year began Oct. 1.

According to city documents, CRA officials expect Redevelopment Management Associates to present an outline of proposed changes at the end of November, and to city commissioners for approval in December. The company, formed in 2009 and run by redevelopment consultants Kim Briesemeister and Chris Brown, pitches itself as a way to help cities “reinvent” themselves to attract businesses, jobs and revenue.

The CRA budget for the new fiscal year of 2015-2016 will likely include funds for transportation projects not in the existing plan, Strawbridge said.

He cited two memos from Feldman to commissioners. One outlined an extension of the proposed $50 million WAVE streetcar to a portion of the Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights area at a cost of $7.5 million. The CRA would make an anticipated annual payment of $870,000, for up to 11 years.

The other memo called for the CRA to pay $197,000 to offset operational expenses for the existing Sun Trolley system in the CRA area.

In the past, the CRA has also funded neighborhood street parties, giving one group up to $142,000, Strawbridge said. He questioned whether that was a proper expenditure under a previous opinion by the Florida Attorney General’s Office, which opined that CRA funds should be used for “bricks and mortar” projects.

Hollywood Beach CRA the target of moves to cut its funding, or kill it

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Rendering of Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. Photo: City of Hollywood

Rendering of Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. Photo: City of Hollywood

Hollywood City Commissioner Peter Hernandez says the Beach Community Redevelopment Agency should be abolished because it has had increasing property tax funds for its use — at times exceeding its needs — while the “rest of the city is starving” to pay for operations and needed improvements.

While his proposal has yet to gain support from his colleagues, Hernandez and other city commissioners, who also serve as directors of the CRA, have directed the city’s staff to explore options that would redirect the Hollywood Beach CRA funds left over at the end of the year to the city. Such a revenue give back would mark a first for a CRA in Broward.

In the past, the Hollywood Beach CRA has been accused in a state audit of circumventing state law by rolling over end-of-the-year funds to the next year, a large part of which in recent years has backed the $147 million Margaritaville hotel-entertainment complex in the redevelopment area. The complex is expected to open in October.

In suggesting that the Beach CRA should be abolished, Hernandez said the district — which encompasses less than a square half-mile at 293 acres — “is not really blighted and a slum.’’ Those conditions, he said, are to be met to qualify for redevelopment funds under state law.

The city, Hernandez said, has been operating on “bare bones budgets” while the CRA has given $28 million in incentives to the private developer of Margaritaville. In addition, the city gave developer Lon Tabatchnick valuable, city-owned beachfront land for the project and endorsed construction of a $38 million parking garage project using bonds to be paid back with parking revenues over 30 years.

Peter Hernandez

Peter Hernandez

The CRA district was established in 1997. According to city documents, property values there have jumped since the initial assessment of $546 million. Property in the district is now assessed at about $2.7 billion, which will bring in about $27 million in tax revenue, according to the city’s new annual budget that starts Oct. 1.

Abolishing the Beach CRA and redirecting its tax revenues to the city, Hernandez said, could result in Hollywood being able to cut its citywide property tax rate, the highest among municipalities in Broward County, by 1.5 mills — or $1.50 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

CRA executive director Jorge Camejo did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

With the city in need of funds for operations and other purposes, city officials, at the urging of some commissioners, have presented a variety of proposals aimed at shifting to the city a sizeable portion of an estimated $5 million in anticipated unused end-of-year CRA funds for the coming year.

The Beach CRA gets is revenue from tax increment funds levied on property within its redevelopment boundaries. The $5 million in anticipated unused funds are drawn from four sources: Hollywood, $2.7 million; Broward County, $2 million; Children’s Services Council, $179,000 and the South Broward Hospital District, $54,000.

Unless the city finds a way to shift the money, the funds must be spent on redevelopment within the CRA’s boundaries.

LOOKING AT OPTIONS

City officials are examining a variety of options to obtain the CRA funds – from having the CRA proportionally refund unused tax dollars as outlined above, with the city receiving only $2.7 million, to reducing the percentage of tax increment funds earmarked to the Beach CRA, resulting in the city receiving $4.7 million, or even abolishing the CRA.

Abolishing the Beach CRA, however, would endanger $116 million in projects in the CRA district, including installing underground utilities, the reconfiguration of the Hollywood Boulevard Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, and street flooding/drainage improvements, according to a city document.

Two other options require county approval: one calls for Broward to agree to give up its $2 million to the city, resulting in the city receiving a total of $4.7 million; the other calls for removing the Diplomat Hotel from the CRA, resulting in $3.3 million going to the city rather than the CRA.

Hernandez said he expects city officials to begin discussions with the county soon regarding about how best to proceed.

Ralph Stone, director of the Broward County Housing Finance and Community Development Division, said it “would be a first” should a CRA seek to return unused end-of-the year funds to its municipality for citywide uses.

About a year ago, the county said it planned to monitor and take action against CRAs that hoarded funds at the end of the year rather than spending on needed projects. Under state law, CRAs that have funds at the end of the year must spend that money on projects to be completed in three years or pay down debt. If not, CRAs must return the money to the agencies that contributed those public tax dollars.

The county’s concern followed findings by the Broward Inspector General Office that the Margate CRA deliberately mishandled $2.7 million in funds, rolling it over for several years without specific purposes. The Inspector General also found that the Hallandale Beach CRA had $2.2 million in questionable expenditures—an allegation denied by the agency.

In February 2013, the Florida Auditor General cited the Hollywood Beach CRA for failing to report $36.2 million in unspent year-end funds from year 2009-2010 and $34.2 million from 2010-2011.

The Beach CRA, Hernandez said, had “rolled over the funds for Margaritaville.”

Frank Schnidman is a community redevelopment expert/consultant and professor of urban and regional planning at Florida Atlantic University. In an interview, he said that over the years the Hollywood Beach CRA has complied “with the spirit of the law” in its use of end-of-year funds, but added it “has been rolling (funds) over and built up quite a bank account” that was a key funding tool for the city-backed Margaritaville project.

Schnidman said city officials seeking funds for citywide expenses and projects should also consider talking with the county about the option Hernandez has suggested: abolish the Hollywood Beach CRA.

Auditor rips Ft. Lauderdale CRA as taxpayers face $1 million loss

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sixth Street Plaza

Sixth Street Plaza

A new Fort Lauderdale auditor’s report castigates the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for its poor oversight of a taxpayer-financed office and retail plaza that was to be the centerpiece of the city’s ambitious plans to revitalize the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor.

Sixth Street Plaza, a 23,000-square foot building at 900 NW Sixth Street, filed for bankruptcy this month, further jeopardizing the repayment of almost $1 million in taxpayer loans.

“The project lacked fundamental project management discipline, from risk assessment and establishing proper governance to detailed accounting of funds disbursement,” City Auditor John Herbst wrote in a cover memo to the city commission. “Accordingly, there is no way to be certain that all of the funds put into this project were spent appropriately.”

The city commission, sitting as the CRA board, requested the report after FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that taxpayer loans were in jeopardy due to the forced sale of the plaza.

FLAWED FROM THE START

The report found the Sixth Street Plaza project flawed from the start by a shoddy business plan. Still, it was pushed by cheerleading CRA staff.

“The CRA staff failed to maintain their objectivity,” the report adds. “As observed in emails…in 2008 and 2009, they appeared to view their role as project advocates rather than as stewards of the CRA’s funds.”

Former CRA director Al Battle, now deputy director of Fort Lauderdale's Department of Sustainable Development

Former CRA director Al Battle, now deputy director of Fort Lauderdale’s Department of Sustainable Development

Alfred Battle, who headed the CRA for the Northwest-Progresso-Flagler Heights area during part of Sixth Street Plaza’s construction, did not respond to requests for comment. Battle is currently a deputy director at the city’s Department of Sustainable Development.

The report, released last week, to be discussed during Tuesday’s city commission conference meeting.

The Fort Lauderdale CRA is one of nine municipal CRAs in Broward County that direct tax dollars to areas to clean up slum and blight.

In November, Broward County Circuit Court Judge Carlos Rodriguez ordered the public sale of Sixth Street Plaza at the request of Regent Bank, which from 2005 to 2007 had loaned the developer nearly $2.3 million.

The developer is Sixth Street Plaza Inc., whose corporate president is Maria J. Freeman.

Freeman is well known to city hall and Broward political circles. She is vice chair of the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority and has served on the CRA’s Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights Redevelopment Board, the city Marine Advisory Board, the city Planning and Zoning Board and the city Planned Unit Development Zoning District Advisory Committee.

Freeman’s business telephone has been disconnected. She did not respond to a request to comment made through her attorney, Susan D. Lasky.

LOANS AND GRANTS

The Fort Lauderdale CRA gave Sixth Street Plaza another $1.2 million in loans and grants between 2005 and 2009, according to the report. The South Florida Regional Planning Council, a quasi-governmental agency, also loaned Sixth Street Plaza $300,000.

Regent Bank hoped to recoup some of its loan in the public sale of the plaza. The sale, however, was put on hold when Freeman’s Sixth Street Plaza Inc. filed for bankruptcy in federal court. Sixth Street Plaza filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 4, the day before the plaza was to be sold at a public auction.

Freeman personally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013, claiming she “has experienced difficulties caused by the significant downturn in the real estate market.” That action is pending.

Regent Bank’s attorney Steve Moody said in an interview that the latest bankruptcy filing shifts the state court foreclosure case to federal court and stops the public sale.

Even if the public sale eventually occurs the odds remain long that the city will recoup the money it loaned to build Sixth Street Plaza. The taxpayer loans are “subordinate,” meaning that if the public auction does not raise enough money to pay off Regent, no monies will be left over to repay the taxpayers.

Zillow, an online real estate database, placed the value of Sixth Street Plaza this month at $743,512, down from a February estimate of $905,275.

The Sixth Street Plaza opened in 2010, but has never been successful in attracting more than a handful of long-term tenants despite rosy CRA estimates. A 2002 CRA staff analysis of the plaza’s vacancy rate “was unsupported” and lacked “market studies or comparative rents,” the auditor’s report states.

“…Even under aggressive assumptions regarding vacancy rates, and using an extremely low budget for construction, the development was projected to generate barely enough cash flow after operations to service its debt,” the report concludes.

One long-term plaza tenant is the CRA itself, which is paying $96,000 a year through 2016 for 6,000-feet of office space, rent the auditor’s report criticizes as an “above-market rate.” The CRA will pay “as much as $481,947” in excess rent” during the term of its lease, the report points out.

NO JUSTIFICATION

The report says “the CRA director at the time” said that “paying higher (rental) rates would jumpstart the office market in the area, but there was no rationale provided to justify that statement.”

The report goes on describe the plaza’s business plan as “meager, lacking a detailed market demand analysis, marketing plan, construction budget and cash flow projections.” Auditors found no “documentation of the developer’s capacity to undertake the work.”

That disorganization was reflected in the project’s construction budget that jumped from $735,000 in 2001 to $1.6 million in 2002. “There is no explanation of what increased and why,” the report states.

CRA files likewise contained “no payroll reports, subcontractor labor invoices, material invoices, etc…It is unclear whether the information regarding the cost overruns, change orders and additional loans from Regent Bank was shared with the CRA in a timely manner,” the audit said.

Sixth Street Plaza failed even though Freeman raised a total of $3.75 million through loans and grants. “The project should have had more than adequate capital,” the report adds.

According to Sixth Street Plaza’s bankruptcy petition, the company also owes more than $52,000 to subcontractors and other businesses.

One reason the auditor had difficulty tracing expenditures is because the original agreement between the CRA and developer did not allow for the CRA to audit Sixth Street Plaza’s records.

“Accordingly, the (auditor’s office) was unable to review key elements that may have yielded a better understanding of the cost increases and flow of funds,” Herbst said in his cover memo.

The report also blasts the CRA for failing to monitor adequately the distribution of taxpayer monies to the project. As a result, “the city is unable to determine how $916,344…of CRA funds were spent,” the report says.

Herbst recommended the “CRA needs to integrate a culture of fiscal discipline and accountability into its core mission of eliminating slum and blight.” To accomplish that, the report suggests the city commission separate project management and advocacy within the CRA as “these functions have goals which may be at odds with each other…”

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