By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward will seek the return of county property tax dollars from city community redevelopment agencies that hoarded that money instead of spending it on projects to fight slum and blight that are ready to get underway, according to County Administrator Bertha Henry.
The county’s toughened stand follows recent findings by Broward’s Inspector General that Margate deliberately mishandled $2.7 million in CRA funds. It also comes amid fresh criticism about the way Hallandale Beach allegedly handled its community redevelopment funds.
Frank Schnidman, an attorney and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said in an interview that Hallandale Beach appears to have mishandled $12.6 million in CRA funds – an allegation disputed by a top city official.
“They lost track of the money,” Schnidman said. “They were not aware there were all these millions of dollars…they had misplaced.”
The County approves the establishment of CRAs after the need for redevelopment is studied and documented and contributes tax dollars – so called tax increment funding, or TIF – to the municipal agencies from revenue generated by the increase in property values in the redevelopment area.
Ten Broward cities have CRAs that receive TIF dollars. Others include Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Pompano Beach, have CRAs.
Henry said in an interview last week that the county will enhance its review of expenditures to make sure municipal CRAs don’t improperly bank funds at year end instead of spending them as required by state law.
“They now know they have to comply,” said Henry, referring to the Inspector General’s publicized findings.
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, pay down debt or return it to the county.
INSPECTOR GENERAL’S PROBE
For months, the Inspector General has been conducting what appears to be a review of how some municipal CRAs in Broward have handled funds unspent at the end of each fiscal year.
In Margate, investigators found, the CRA mishandled funds by rolling them over from year to year without designating them for specific purposes. The Inspector General said the county could retrieve $2.7 million in funds provided to Margate.
Henry’s parallel review of CRA spending is expected to take two months. County representatives will then meet with CRA’s receiving tax increment property tax funds. For cities that don’t have projects ready to go, “I will recommend we go after the money,” she said.
Cynthia Chambers, director of Broward’s environmental protection department whose duties include overseeing municipal CRAs, will also be watching. She said the county would “certainly” seek the return of tax funds from CRAs that violate state law regarding the handling of year-end funds.
The Inspector General’s ongoing CRA probe began in 2012 after a string of stories in BrowardBulldog.org about questionable loans to local businesses and land purchases by Hallandale Beach. The 14-month investigation found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures, the improper co-mingling of city and CRA funds dating to the CRA’s establishment in 1996 and poor record keeping.
The Inspector General also asked the city to tell it how much money the CRA had, suggesting the amount was uncertain. An audit by Hallandale Beach that in July, 2013 identified $12.6 million in CRA funds co-mingled with city funds.
Schnidman, the FAU professor and a former consultant for the Hallandale Beach CRA, was critical of the audit finding such a huge sum.
“They were not aware the money was there; they misplaced it. They were hanging onto the money…year after year,” Schnidman said.
The $12.6 million, Schnidman said, should be returned to the government agencies that, like the county, contributed property tax increase funds to the Hallandale Beach CRA – the city, South Broward Hospital District and Children’s Services Council.
Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee Miller disputed the notion the CRA had excess funds. “Anyone saying that is misleading the public. It’s not found money…not excess cash,” she said.
Miller said the audit went back to as far as 1996 to ascertain the amount of CRA funding, with interest. The money, she said, was then transferred to the CRA trust fund. Asked where the money was located, Miller said it was from current funding that year, not from any leftover funds from previous years.
Miller said the city had a good estimate of the amount of CRA dollars co-mingled with city funds, but the audit confirmed $12.6 million.
In the past when funds were co-mingled, Miller said it had been the city’s practice to account for CRA costs near the end of the budget year on September 30.
The $12.6 million CRA funds were used to pay agency costs during 2012-2013, according to Miller and city controller Melissa Cruz. Of that, more than $10 million went to pay salaries and benefits, administrative charges, debt service, utilities, material and supplies, repairs and maintenance, community redevelopment programs, grants to community groups, professional and outside services, subsidized loan programs, and other service charges. Another $500,000 was transferred to the city, and $2.3 million was designated for capital projects.
“It’s not as insidious as was inferred,” Miller said.