By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward County commissioners vowed to seek changes in state law to give them more oversight over municipal redevelopment agencies after learning they cannot audit alleged misspending by Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
“We want to get back some control from the state,” County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger said in an interview.
Gunzburger and other commissioners expressed frustration when told by county staff that their authority to audit was limited by both state law and the county’s 1996 agreement with Hallandale Beach that established its CRA.
The issue came before the commission last week when a Hallandale city commissioner and a former city commissioner, both critics of the way the city has operated the CRA, traveled to County Hall to urge the county to conduct a financial review.
The critics, Commissioner Michele Lazarow and former Commissioner Keith London, cited a recent Broward Inspector General’s report that found that the CRA had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in public funds. The report had recommended a county audit with an eye toward recovering any misspent county funds.
A CITY DELEGATION TO COUNTY HALL
A delegation of city officials who have challenged the Inspector General’s report, led by Mayor Joy Cooper, argued successfully that the county has no authority to conduct an audit.
During the discussion, County Commissioner Tim Ryan noted that the Inspector General’s Office had cited possible violations of state law by the CRA, which is overseen by the Hallandale City Commission sitting as the CRA’s board of directors.
“Can we recoup [misspent funds]? Do we have the ability to act on violations?” he asked.
County Attorney Joni A. Coffey and County Auditor Evan Lukic gave the county commission the news that they were powerless to review $36 million in tax funds they have sent to Hallandale Beach for CRA purposes during the past 17 years.
Coffey explained that the county’s agreement with Hallandale Beach provided that oversight of CRA actions belongs to the city and the state, not the county.
Said Lukic, who reviewed the county-city CRA pact, “We have limited authority – but not to audit.”
Lukic said he and Coffey will work together in coming days to better define the scope of the county’s oversight authority.
CRA LIKE A PIGGYBANK?
The Inspector General’s report says that from 2007 through 2012 Hallandale used the CRA like a piggybank to improperly pay for the city’s general expenses and other pet projects, including donations to favored nonprofit groups and local businesses. In all, agents found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures.
“The Inspector General has raised concerns about the use of money,” said Gunzburger, whose district covers part of Hallandale. “We send money to the Hallandale Beach CRA and it may be being used in inappropriate ways.
“They continue to use CRA for a piggybank,” Gunzburger added. “I am disappointed we are…not able to do anything about possible violations of law.”
Gunzburger and other commissioners asked the county’s staff to look into finding ways to change state or county laws, and make recommendations after the county commission returns from its summer recess.
“This has to be addressed through Tallahassee,” Commissioner Lois Wexler said.
The matter is “not a Republican or Democrat issue” but one of oversight of CRA spending, Commissioner Martin Kiar said.
Changes are needed “to protect the taxpayers’ money,” Commissioner Ryan added.
While the county’s elected leaders had a lot to say publicly about the matter, Hallandale Commissioner Lazarow informed them that her colleagues in Hallandale have remained mostly mum.
“There has never been an official action taken by the policy makers: No agenda item. No resolution. No motion. No vote,” she said.
Since the county commission meeting, the Florida Legislature’s Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Palm Beach County Democrat, has jumped into the debate, asking city officials to explain how the funds were handled and spent.