Eliminating poverty remains the noble goal of the well-funded entities called community redevelopment agencies. But helping low-income residents lead self-sufficient lives, in housing they can afford, hasn’t always been the result.
A Miami-Dade grand jury report came down hard on local CRAs, saying that they were just this side of being “slush funds” for the elected officials who are in charge of doling out millions in property taxes diverted from general revenue for the purpose of eliminating “slum and blight.” Also, there’s little transparency in how these property-tax funds are spent.
The money has, indeed, rejuvenated huge swaths of neglected areas, especially in downtown Miami and Overtown. For all the benefits that have been realized, they have come at the expense of the very residents that CRA money is supposed to help. Eliminating the problems of slum and blight too often looks like eliminating any possibility that they can afford to live in what are now highly developed, expensive neighborhoods.
But the state’s CRA enabling statute’s wording is so vague that it’s hard to argue that, for instance, an art museum in downtown Miami is not a far better use of the land that, as Bicentennial Park, was home to the homeless and not much more. The Frost Museum of Science, under construction and, more significant, underfunded, hopes the county signs off on Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposal to use CRA funds to help with operations once it’s open. Yes, there is precedent, but county commissioners have an obligation to take seriously museum advocates’ promise to raise private funds for the structure. Commissioners, after all, are among those who are responsible for the damning grand jury report.
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Because the statute lacks specifics, CRA supporters get to interpret the language to mean whatever they want. “CRAs often times spend money and find a way to say it fits within ‘the approved community redevelopment plan,’ ” the report said. “We learned of a wide range of projects, events, services and acquisitions in which spending was justified only when the interpretation of community redevelopment plans was stretched beyond the pale.” As evidence, the grand jury cited “fairs, carnivals and community entertainment” as dubious beneficiaries of CRA largesse.
CRAs are not really the problem, the people who run them are. City and county commissioners also make up CRA membership, with little, if any, citizen involvement. This increases elected officials’ power exponentially. Wearing their CRA hats, they approve the initiatives that will get funding. As commissioners, they approve those approvals. A commissioner’s pet project simply can’t lose.
And this: “The CRA statute does not require agencies to engage in a formal bidding process when spending monies,” the report found. “That means those who operate CRAs, or the board members who approve expenditures, are free to solicit a particular person or company to do a specific project without a competitive bidding process.”
And we all know what that can mean: “cronyism, collusion, inflated or exorbitant costs as well as other issues that lead to corrupt practices.”
It’s highly doubtful that, given their composition, CRAs will self-correct, ensuring more transparency, appointing community members to the boards and providing more affordable housing. That’s a job for the state Legislature, one it should take most seriously.