More than $100 million in property-tax expenditures face preliminary approval by Miami-Dade commissioners on Thursday, but don’t expect too much suspense in the outcome. After all, the budgets up for a vote went into effect nine months ago.
Special tax districts known as Community Redevelopment Agencies routinely seek retroactive county approval for six- and seven-figure budgets months after administrators start spending the money in the plans — expenditures usually funded by a mix of county and city property taxes.
The practice was criticized in a February grand jury report calling for better oversight of money flowing through the county’s 14 CRA districts, which siphon property taxes from governments’ general funds in order to improve neighborhoods deemed suffering from slum and blight.
“CRA boards,” the report stated, “are spending money in the new fiscal year before the Board of County Commissioners has approved their budget… The Grand Jury believes this practice must stop.”
There’s no evidence of an accelerated approval process this year at the county level, and the rules governing redevelopment agencies don’t require Miami-Dade to endorse expenditures in advance. While ratified months ago by the city governments that control the CRAs, the agencies from Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, Miami Beach, Homestead, Florida City and South Miami are coming up for their first votes before county commissioners when the Economic Prosperity committee meets Thursday afternoon.
“It’s really almost perfunctory,” said Xavier Suarez, the county commissioner who serves as chairman of the Economic Prosperity committee. “If they misused or misapplied [the money] I suppose we could not approve their budget and ask for the money back.”
Assuming Suarez’s committee gives them a thumbs up, the 2016 budgets still need a vote before the full 13-member County Commission — for spending plans covering budget years that end a little more than three months from now, on Sept. 30.
While other redevelopment agency budgets have won commission approval in recent months, two within the city of Miami have yet to submit any budget documents to Miami-Dade, officials said.
Supporters of redevelopment agencies tout their ability to focus government spending on areas in need of help. State law allows counties and cities to form the districts, which are funded by a portion of new property-tax revenue generated by rising real estate values and new construction.
This year, redevelopment budgets are funding government services (the Miami Beach district is spending $4.5 million on police), for-profit enterprises (the Overtown agency agreed to a subsidy of up to $115 million for a new hotel complex), neighborhood improvements (the South Miami redevelopment agency is spending $33,000 on sidewalks and drains), and nonprofits (the Florida City agency is spending $27,500 on sewer upgrades for the Florida Pioneer Building Museum).
Neil Shiver, assistant director of the Southeast Overtown/Park West redevelopment agency, said the extended timetable for county approval stems from the overlapping governance of the districts. Miami commissioners do double duty as board members of the redevelopment agency, giving them control of this year’s $51 million budget.
“The process is what it is,” Shiver said. He said that since all expenditures must comply with redevelopment plans the county approves as part of a CRA’s creation, the yearly budgets mostly implement the original strategy. “When they approved it, they knew exactly what they were getting,” he said.
The Overtown redevelopment agency board approved the 2016 budget last July, according to a county summary, and then the City Commission ratified the decision on Sept. 10. Miami-Dade’s budget office said it received the Overtown budget in late November, and that staff routinely requests changes and alterations to redevelopment spending plans that delay sending the documents on for commission approval.
“The county doesn’t rubber stamp the budgets,” said Michael Hernández, spokesman for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The budget “staff goes through the spending. If it’s not adhering to the redevelopment plan, they request changes with the CRA.”
Six redevelopment agencies have already received commission approval for their 2016 budgets. The earliest, the Seventh Avenue CRA, is fully controlled by the county since it sits outside city boundaries. It won County Commission endorsement in December. The latest, North Miami Beach’s agency, obtained it in May. Two redevelopment agencies, Miami’s Omni and Midtown districts, have not submitted any budgets at all for the 2016 cycle, which Miami-Dade blamed on a change in the executive director running both agencies in March.
Scrutiny from the grand jury comes amid a push to extend the life of several redevelopment agencies in Miami-Dade — key votes that can mean hundreds of millions in city and county property taxes staying within a district’s boundaries rather than funding police, transit, roads and other general services needed throughout the government.
The push follows the county’s 2014 decision to add 22 years to the life of a Miami Beach district that includes Lincoln Road, home to some of the priciest commercial real estate in the country.
One of the conditions sought by the Gimenez administration and others is to require a Miami-Dade commissioner to hold a vote on a revelopment agency board as a way to increase county oversight of the funds.
“This is county money,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who recently won approval for a plan to impose rules on extending CRAs, including more money for affordable housing and public access to financial documents. “Because we’re allowing it to be spent under the direction of another board, we should have greater oversight.”