HALLANDALE BEACH

Inspector General: Hallandale Beach ‘grossly mismanaged’ millions in public funds

 

BrowardBulldog.org

Broward’s Inspector General has found that Hallandale Beach officials “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in public funds “entrusted to the care of its Community Redevelopment Agency,” according to a report obtained by BrowardBulldog.org.

“The [Office of Inspector General] investigation substantiated the allegations and uncovered numerous deficiencies in the city’s administration of the CRA,” says the 50-page preliminary report.

The report has not been released publicly.

Investigators said they found at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans to local businesses and grants to local nonprofits — as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.

The city improperly spent $416,000 of CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries, the report says.

The spending, which was not always documented, was often done at what amounted to the whim of former city managers Mike Good and Mark Antonio, the report says.

Former Commissioner Keith London told investigators that his colleagues “looked at the CRA fund as one big pile of money and they didn’t care how or where the money went,” the report says.

Mayor Joy Cooper, however, offered a different take. “She was not concerned with the CRA administration’s lack of [expenditure] verification because the CRA Board members observed the work of the nonprofits when they went out in the community,” the report says.

Cooper and the rest of the city commission also sit as the CRA’s board of directors.

“This report vindicates everything I have stated for the last six years,” London said Tuesday night.

Cooper could not be reached for comment.

The probe began 14 months ago following a string of stories in BrowardBulldog.org about questionable city loans to local businesses and land purchase through the CRA. It surfaced publicly last April when county agents sought a multitude of records at City Hall.

In some cases, the report says, the CRA awarded funds despite a 2010 Florida Attorney General opinion that CRA expenditures must be connected to “brick and mortar” capital improvements — not, for example, to promote economic development or promote socially beneficial programs by nonprofits.

In one case, the line of what’s legal was apparently crossed and a crime may have been committed, the report says.

The Inspector General’s findings about Hallandale Beach are the latest to cite serious mismanagement of CRA funds. A year ago, for example, the Inspector General slammed Lauderdale Lakes for misspending $2.5 million in CRA funds. More recently, the Florida Auditor General identified misspending by Hollywood’s CRA.

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the gross mismanagement of CRA funds by a Broward County municipality is not a unique occurrence,” the report reads.

The CRA was established in 1996 under a state law that allows it to collect tax revenue to be used to rid slum and blight conditions. It receives 95 percent of the taxes collected on the appreciated value of properties within its boundaries. The county has provided Hallandale’s CRA with approximately $35 million since it began.

Inspector General John Scott’s report includes what amounts to a warning to other Broward cities that his office will be eyeballing their CRAs to see how they spend their property tax dollars.

“The [Inspector General] will continue to examine the expenditure of CRA funds by municipalities,” says the report.

The final report will recommend to the county that it look over its legal options “to prevent the ongoing abuse of the CRA process and recover those funds that may have been misspent,” the preliminary report says.

In Hallandale, there was an apparent lack of regular monitoring by the CRA of who got its funds and how that money was spent.

In one case, the report says, a nonprofit grant recipient spent nearly $5,000 in funds to make a payment on her time-share at the Westgate Resort in Orlando, make payroll payments to herself and her brother and on other things.

“We found probable cause to believe that Dr. Deborah Brown, the founder and director of the Palms Center for the Arts (PCA), engaged in criminal misconduct in the handling of a $5,000 award the PCA received from the CRA,” the report says.

Brown could not be reached for comment.

The matter has been referred to the sheriff’s office and the Broward State Attorney for prosecution.

The Inspector General’s report also clears Commissioner Anthony Sanders of allegations that the CRA showed favoritism toward him by substantially overpaying his nonprofit, Higher Vision Ministries, for property it purchased in 2009 at 501 NW First Ave.

“The investigation did not substantiate the allegations, although we found that the CRA fomented an appearance of favoritism by failing to consider the purchase of the property in a fully transparent manner,” the report says.

The report also cites “institutional deficiencies in the establishment, organization and function of the CRA” that it says contributed to numerous instances of gross mismanagement. They include:

• Failure for nearly 16 years to establish a CRA trust fund, as required by law, which led to the commingling of CRA funds with city funds in the city’s bank account. A trust finally was set up last May.

•  Failure to operate the CRA independently from the city. Former CRA executive director Alvin Jackson told investigators the CRA “was treated like any other city department and that the city had ‘free rein to tap into CRA funds.’”

• Failure to timely generate detailed CRA plans and adhere to them, as well as a lack of a “stable and empowered CRA staff to ensure compliance” with the law.

“We also identified multiple instances where city officials ignored warnings from CRA staff of various deficiencies in the management of the CRA,” the report says.

The report notes that before Jackson there were several CRA managers under City Manager Good’s heavy managerial thumb. “More troubling is evidence that Mr. Good and other senior officials lacked understanding of” state statutes governing the CRA “and did not require compliance.”

The report notes that in 2011, after news reports about CRA problems in BrowardBulldog.org and elsewhere, it undertook “remedial steps” to improve its management and effectiveness.

But the Inspector General indicated those steps, including the establishment of the trust fund, are not enough.

The report includes a half-dozen recommendations intended to “ensure the independence of the CRAs,” including building a stable and knowledgeable staff with the authority to ensure compliance with the law, and diligent future monitoring of expenditures.

Broward Bulldog is a not-for-profit online only newspaper created to provide local reporting in the public interest. www.browardbulldog.org 954-603-1351

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