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

By William Gjebre, 

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 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.

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Latest comments

  • Good article about sneaky dealings. Seems to be a trend with all those grabbing for power.

    And, your title is really misleading and can be chalked up to “click bait”.

    Go easy on Flagler Village. The streetcar and the budget for events are to activate the blight that still does exist in this neighborhood. I have been here since ’94 and while the crime is not as rampant, we do need to attract investment as we have a lot of empty land.

    Activating an area with people on the street fights blight as well as brick and mortar projects. The $142k funded something like 26 events, which were voted best in Broward and turned this neighborhood around.

    We extended Sistrunk to Federal Highway. We all know that as FV does better, so will Sistrunk. Some of those “Poor people” still live in our neighborhood and we have already several affordable housing projects within our streets (as well as some amazing new urban core). The Wave will allow lower income people to live and work in FV and not need a car.

    I invite you to come take a look the next time you are in town.

    Rob Larsen
    President, FVCA

  • I agree with R Larsen,

    While I have no doubt there are some less the completely transparent things that have gone on with this project this is hardly a scandal and hardly at the expense of the poor. That is the way major projects get done in the real world.

    Not every building, school or transportation investment in our communities that happens here is a scandal. We live in the most populated area of the entire state that is also one of the most active global tourist attractions. I’m getting tired of some of these articles from this particular writer that tries to turn a scandal into every building, school, resort and community investment goes up. We don’t live in a rural area like Ocala. This is South Florida and your going to need major investments from businesses, build new schools, build new buildings. That doesn’t make it a scandal. Personally I think the poor and the middle class are the ones that will benefit the most from this project.

    Seriously if every time we don’t move forward because of small details buried i minutia then we’d still be riding horseback and homeschooling here is South Florida. Not all development is evil, its progress.

  • Thanks Scott Strawbridge for having the courage of civic duty and strength of character to call out yourself and your committee. Proud Congressman Hastings voiced his opposition to inequities in most CRA plans. Gave people a voice. Up to organizations and citizens to take it from here.

    Community needs to meet to decide action we want to take on public input section of CRA Plan Modification on I believe Wednesday, October 28th at 330pm 8th Floor Conf Room Fort Laud City Hall.

    Not so fast! Should be the chant.

    At that meeting, we need to ask for more input and January vote not currently forced December vote.

    This is change of focus and attempt at compliance is so vital. Also how the proper continued focus of action and a plan that adheres to intent of the CRA will lead to true self sufficiency in a “teach a person to fish and add some juvenile fish into the pond” kind of way.

    We need to decide on unified ction we want to take on public input section of the CRA Plan Modification discussion.

    Notice given. Now let’s stand up as the Sistrunk residents and supporters as the vital part of the Broward County community that we are and figure out how we can amplify our communities voice and have a say in economics, commercial development, public policy and legislation. And the nexus of all of these instruments should be working in unison to lift Sistrunk and it’s residents to where they belong as the CRA was intended and is funded to the tune of $100-130 million dollars.

  • We need to demand action at all levels to correct this blatantly non compliant thus illegal use of funds and the inequity caused by the focus on reimbursing City spending and unabashed open focus on spending money in NE versus spending on complete redevelopment and maintenance of development in Northwest Midtown area.

    Transportation, Economic Development, Environment & Growth Management Public Hearing
    1st Reading of Local Bills
    Thursday, September 10, 2015, 4:00 – 6:00 p.m.
    Broward MPO, Boardroom
    Trade Centre South, 100 W. Cypress Creek Road, Suite 850, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33309

    Transportation along the Midtown Fort Lauderdale Sistrunk corridor Currently in Fort Lauderdale there is in the areas east of 7th Avenue 2 forms of transportation BCT and Sun Trolley and soon to be a 3rd, The Wave. The residents of Northwest only have BCT between 7th avenue and 15th Avenue and is spotty elsewhere. This is inherently inequitable.

    Delegation Action Requested
    Ask the Broward legislative Delegation to do everything in it’s power to force equity in the Fort Lauderdale Northwest Progresso Flagler Heights(Village) CRA transportation plans to make sure that transportation between NW 7th Ave and NW 27th Ave along Sistrunk is provided in Fort Lauderdale at the same level of service as Flagler Village and Progresso east of 7th Avenue. Furthermore, there should be connected Sun Trolley Service along all of Sistrunk Blvd. especially Sun Trolley service restored to The Midtown area between NW 7th Ave and NW 14th Avenue going West and out to NW 27th Ave where the African American Research Library is located.

  • I agree with Mr Larsen and have been following activities in Flagler Village (Flagler Heights/NW Progresso) since the early 1990s. One of the social benefits of public transportation is that it is accessible and economical, and certainly not exclusively for the affluent. There is a mix of incomes in Flagler Village and it is one of the most demograhpically and economically diverse neighborhoods in the city. The challenge will be to maintain that balance as the area continues to redevelop. Public transportation is a key element of urban infrastructure and should be part of any sound, sustainable redevelopment plan.

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