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Unhappy Broward commissioners want more control over city CRAs

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

The Broward County Commission

The Broward County Commission

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.

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  • Mr Gjebre,

    I read your Miami Herald article concerning the Hallandale Beach CRA investigation and OIG audit (Subpoenas landing at Hallandale City Hall, Miami Herald, June 12, 2013). Wile you accurately reported that the Inspector General “found ‘probable’ cause that Brown, the Palm Center’s founder and director, had engaged in criminal misconduct,” you completely ignored the Palm Center’s detailed, fact-laden response and rebuttal to the Inspector General’s misleading, inaccurate, and irresponsible report. The Final OIG Report included as Exhibit F the Palm Center’s accurate assessment of the entirety of the Palm Center’s management of the CRA’s $5,000 “matching grant.” Conveniently, the OIG did not include the voluminous supporting documents presented by the Palm Center, nor did it even attempt to address the compelling evidence of the Palm Center’s proper and documented safeguarding of the CRA’s grant funds. It is likely that the OIG was completely embarrassed to learn that its investigation ignored or overlooked the actual facts in its effort to cast false blame. Yet, the Palm Center’s rebuttal completely undermined the entirety of the OIG’s misleading accusations concerning the Palm Center.

    The Palm Center plane and implemented a “Save the Arts” educational and performance trip to Washington, D.C. in March 2010 that was partially funded by a generous $5,000.00 grant from the CRA. The total expenses for the Washington, DC program exceeded $17,000.00, most of which was raised through donations and PCA operational funding, with the $5,000.00 from the Hallandale Beach CRA comprising the balance. The total expenditures for the trip were properly identified and reported. The 48 students and chaperones who traveled by charter bus from Hallandale Beach to D.C. performed at the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and at the White House in Lafayette Park. They also marched in unison to the White House in full band regalia, met with Members of Congress, observed then-Rep. Kendrick Meek vote on the important Health Care Bill, and learned about lobbying for educational issues.

    This successful endeavor was a once-in-a-lifetime for these Hallandale Beach students, and is yet another of the success stories of the Palm Center for the Arts and its entire team, led by Dr. Deborah Brown.

    I urge you to review the entirety of the Palm Center’s rebuttal, and to include in your next article a fair presentation of the Palm Center’s response to the misguided OIG conclusions.

  • Wow Ben.

    Are you planning on trying your case in the newspaper?

    Ben, how did Brown find a Dade County bow-tied attorney?

    I wonder how Brown could afford to pay your $500 per hour fee for the thirteen page response you gave to the OIG?

    So when Cooper gets deposed are you going to SAO and representing her or are you going to represent Brown?

    One last question: Will you tell Brown to give up Cooper or are you going to milk payments from Cooper for as long as possible and let Brown go to jail?

  • So here’s the thing County Commissioners:

    You don’t seem to have the right to audit municipal CRAs…only to give them money. If that doesn’t seem right to you…then why not unanimously apply pressure to the State to step in and determine definitively what dedicated CRA TIF money was spent on. So far, only Stacy Ritter and Marty Kiar have shown any interest in getting the State involved. Why is politics superseding what’s right and how are tax dollars are spent…or wasted??

    Also. in the case of Lauderdale Lakes…if they are resisting a State audit…and know that the County doesn’t have the authority to audit them…then maybe the County needs to play hardball and withhold the appropriations they’ve been fronting LL to support their BSO services. LL owes the County over $8 million for past BSO services and the County has been propping them up going forward. Yet the corrupt powers in charge of LL don’t want anyone to have a look at their books. Is that fair? Is that proper? is that just?

    The County, led by their inept auditor, is at fault for letting municipal CRAs run amok with taxpayer money for years. Who’s going to step up to do the right thing?

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