By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
In the wake of a critical inspector general’s report that accused Margate of mishandling millions of dollars in community redevelopment funds, Broward Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness says he expects similar findings of wrongdoing about other cities as the county’s investigation continues.
“Unfortunately, this is not the only CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) handling it this way; others are doing it,” said Holness. “Funds should be utilized…to rid areas of slum and blight, reduce unemployment and help businessmen. CRAs are going for big projects that don’t help neighborhoods and small businessmen.”
The inspector general referred the matter to the Broward Commission “for any action they deem appropriate,” stating the county may reclaim as much as $2.7 million from Margate’s Community Redevelopment Agency (MCRA). The commission has yet to debate the matter.
But Holness, the only member of the nine-member commission to respond to requests for comment, said he’s more interested in the Margate CRA using the funds “the way though should be used, but are not” rather than focusing on reclaiming any mishandled funds.
Attorney Frank Schnidman, a CRA expert and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, also expects county overseers to find that other CRAs mishandled funds similar to Margate. CRAs have “not paid attention as to how to account for funds left over” at the end of the year, treating their funds “as another [city] account and not as a trust fund” to be maintained separately, Schnidman said.
The county’s findings gives it “leverage to bring Margate to the table to get them to comply” with state requirements through an agreement that would tighten accountability, Schnidman said. If no agreement is reached, the county “has the legal right to the return” of the $2.7 million in county property tax funds that the IG identified in its report.
Should the county take no action, commissioners would be left to explain “to the taxpayers not going after the money,” Schnidman said.
The inspector generals’ July 22 report found that the Margate CRA had “engaged in misconduct in connection with the handling of tax increment financing (TIF) funds it received from Broward County and other taxing authorities.” TIF funds come from taxes levied on the increased value of property in the designated redevelopment area.
“We found that the MCRA has a pattern of intentionally retaining excess funds for the later use of whatever unspecified matter it desired,” the report state. “The MCRA’s failure to appropriate the money in accordance with any legally prescribed alternatives has resulted in a debt to Broward County of approximately $2.7 million for the TIF monies contributed in fiscal years 2008-2012.”
Under state law, the report said, the agency must allocate excess funds to projects to be completed within three years, to reduce existing debt, or to place money in accounts to pay down future anticipated debt. Otherwise, end of the year funds have to be paid back to the county, the city, or the North Broward Hospital District – the entities contributing funds to the Margate CRA.
The report cited one Margate CRA official who informed his board two years ago that the agency “had roughly $10 million in cash that was not committed to any project.”
The county’s report said Margate CRA officials claimed that the funds were allocated to the long-awaited City Center project. However, the report concluded, “…evidence plainly shows that the MCRA has never appropriated a single dollars of annual excess TIF monies for that project.”
In its response to the inspector general, the Margate CRA asserted that it was in “compliance with the spirit if not the letter” of state law, asserting said it “did not hoard public monies for improper purposes.” It nevertheless offered to “appropriate money it ‘hoarded’ to a more specific mandated option,” according to the response prepared by Rachel Bach, a Margate CRA official.
The county’s report on Margate stemmed from an investigation started last September of 10 Broward cities and appeared to center on their handling of end-of-year funds. Other cities included Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale Lakes, Davie, Pompano Beach, Deerfield Beach, Plantation and Coral Springs.
The probe followed a yearlong investigation of the Hallandale Beach CRA in which county investigators found the agency made $2.2 million in questionable expenditures. The Hallandale investigation and report, issued in March 2013, followed a string of stories in BrowardBulldog.org about questionable city loans to local businesses and controversial land purchase through the CRA.
The inspector general’s office also previously determined that Lauderdale Lakes misspent over $2.5 million in CRA funds.
Margate, like Hallandale before it, challenged the authority of the inspector general to investigate the city’s CRA.
“No report should be issued in this investigation, and if it is, it should be issued to the MCRA or the City of Margate, and not Broward County,” the Margate CRA stated in its response.
The Inspector General has dismissed that jurisdictional claim, stating it has the authority to investigate and asserting that it will continue to probe expenditures of CRA funds.