By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A bill to prolong Fort Lauderdale’s downtown taxing district for 20 years beyond its 2030 expiration date failed this legislative session.
Expect another try in Tallahassee, though critics wonder why the Downtown Development Authority is still around after 54 years.
Decades ago, the DDA nurtured the city’s cultural, governmental and business center. Launched by the Legislature in 1965 to replace blight with beauty and economic vitality, the DDA piloted Broward Center for the Performing Arts (1991). Also, it donated land for the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale (1986) and the eight-story Broward County Main Library (1984).
But that was then.
Last year the authority’s only capital outlay was $25,000 for a garage mural, according to an expert analysis of the DDA’s 2017-2018 budget obtained by Florida Bulldog.
Tax dollars for lawyers, lobbyists
The analysis shows that $632,800 went for legal and professional services like lobbying and community relations. That’s almost half of the authority’s new revenue of $1,187,263 from taxes, grants and other sources–excluding carryover, which is unsustainable. In-house human resources accounted for $465,633, or 39.2 percent, of income.
The bottom line: The DDA took in tens of thousands of dollars less than it spent.
In 2016 the city signed a five-year lease of the DDA’s Bubier Park at Las Olas Boulevard and Andrews Avenue for $100,000 a year plus maintenance. Then-Mayor Jack Seiler said he wanted to preserve open space in the face of what Chris Wren, then-DDA executive director, termed financial “arrears,” the Fort Lauderdale Free Press blog reported. Wren had been talking about selling the prime property to a developer to stay afloat.
Jenni Morejon, the current executive director, said the DDA’s budget picture has improved recently to the point where “we’re not in any sort of financial position that we’re not very comfortable with.”
“We’ve changed our operating costs and we’re focusing on smaller projects that have a greater impact,” she said. Increasing values of commercial properties have also helped with the revenue stream from taxes, as with city and county governments.
The authority’s critics say a lot of its budget is invested in pushing the DDA’s own brand, providing a bullhorn for its developer-dominated board of seven members.
Wave streetcar goes bust
That brand took a hit a year ago when the WAVE streetcar line went bust after a reported $33.7 million had been spent on preliminaries.
Two DDA board members, developer partners Alan Hooper and Tim Petrillo, invested over $18 million in properties near a controversial stretch of the proposed route that Hooper championed, Florida Bulldog reported in March.
Morejon defended Hooper and Petrillo as visionaries whose investments predated the WAVE, which she sees as a lost opportunity. Asked about the nature of their more recent land buys, while lobbying for the WAVE, she said they “weren’t questionable because board members have a greater holistic focus on downtown as a whole.”
“Our board of directors is represented by commercial property owners who have had skin in the game and had the most risk in developing Fort Lauderdale over the past several decades,” Morejon said. “It’s important to add that many of them live in the city and this is their home as well. They are residents first.”
Morejon pointed to an ongoing $750,000, federally funded streetscape project along Southwest 2nd Avenue and the Riverwalk as evidence that the DDA works on resident-focused “capital projects that no one else had on their agenda.” She said she expects the streetscape to be completed by the end of this calendar year.
Stan Eichelbaum, president of the 250-member Downtown Fort Lauderdale Civic Association, disputed Morejon’s statement that the DDA pays more than lip service to serving residents’ interests. “There’s lots of questioning about whether they’re a lobbying organization or a performance organization,” he said.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis talked about the DDA’s historic mission. “I feel that those purposes have now been achieved,” he said. “Whether or not we need to continue it after (its 2030 expiration date)…I don’t know whether that’s necessary.”
These days the DDA’s value lies in its leaders’ ability to organize meetings and gather the players for projects like the planned federal courthouse and government center, the mayor said.
“They’re good at it and they have experience in working with various lobbyists and the people who are stakeholders in the downtown, so in many respects they’re helpful,” Trantalis said. “They bring to the table an expertise as a result of their long-term mission up to now.”
Still, the DDA’s networking prowess doesn’t justify its existence to Eichelbaum and the many downtown residents–also DDA taxpayers–who complain about what the authority should be doing but isn’t.
Eichelbaum said when it comes to basic infrastructure issues like water and sewers, wind tunnels, traffic congestion and mitigating the effects of large-scale building, the DDA never speaks up for residents.
“Nobody argues with the initial form of the DDA as a catalyst for eliminating blight, but there’s no longer any need for that,” he said. He described downtown as “a very dense, very vital urban neighborhood that has very tough livability issues.”
“We need an agency that is concerned about not just development, but the ramifications for their constituency of residents,” Eichelbaum said. “Residents have been left out.”
In a document for the Legislature, Morejon wrote that the financial benefits of a 20-year extension would be “reduction in crime and blight. Increased housing and job opportunities due to increased development following 2030.”
Asked in an interview about downtown “blight,” she said she was referring not to vacant land, but “needing to help fill in the gaps for the public good, the public sector.”
Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, filed the DDA extension bill and defended his effort. He wrote in an email that he withdrew the bill from a subcommittee only because he was told it might conflict with another bill he was sponsoring, one dealing with community redevelopment agencies (CRAs). That bill passed.
But Frank Schnidman, a consultant on CRAs and former DDA executive director, saw no conflict between the two bills. The DDA isn’t a CRA; the extension bill was specific to Fort Lauderdale, while the new CRA law will impact the whole state.
“There’s nothing that has anything remotely to do with the DDA” in the successful bill, he said.
Morejon said DDA extension bills have failed because of the Legislature’s small government, anti-taxation mentality. “While the DDA is wildly successful, we were just looked at as added government oversight and taxing,” she said. “I don’t think we had the cards in our decks for these go-arounds.”
LaMarca told Florida Bulldog that future sponsorship of the DDA extension bill will be handled by Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, who filed it previously. DuBose did not respond to emailed questions or phone messages.
Unlike Morejon, LaMarca didn’t allude to fighting blight. He wrote in his email that the bill to amend the DDA’s charter so it doesn’t sunset in 2030 is necessary for the DDA to fulfill its potential role in the federal courthouse and government center projects.
“Both of those projects would require a specific length of time to bond and that was the reason for the time extension,” he wrote. “There are two significant projects that could be bonded under the DDA as public/private partnerships with the local governments and that is the only reason that I filed the bill.”
Schnidman explained that the longer the time frame the DDA has to pay off a bond, the less money it must convince property owners to contribute. With an extension to 2050, it could conceivably secure a 30-year bond in 2020.
A question is raised
That scenario raises this question: What role should downtown Fort Lauderdale taxpayers play in financing projects that benefit all of Broward County?
None, according to Schnidman. He sees the city and county capably tackling the projects on their own.
“The DDA’s role in the courthouse and government center would be hiring consultants, setting up another layer of taxation, and providing a mouthpiece for its board members to make sure they get a piece of the action,” he said.
Trantalis didn’t sound enthusiastic about the prospect of their involvement.
“The DDA chose the WAVE as a project and now they’ve seized upon the federal courthouse and downtown government center,” he said. “They’re trying to maintain relevance.”
As for the authority’s future, he said, “My only concern is that when it comes to making objective decisions, I’m questioning whether some are not steered by the stakeholders that comprise the DDA. I’m not accusing them of that, but that opportunity will always be out there.”
Trantalis said sometime closer to 2030, “collectively, we need to examine what the DDA’s purposes and goals going forward will be and to assess their strategic importance in connection with these new goals. So I alone will not be making that decision.”