Two weeks after a heated meeting of Apalachicola’s Community Redevelopment Agency, the city commission has voted to suspend the CRA beginning Jan. 1 as it works to fund it with about $161,000 in property tax monies that should have been going to it over the last five years, but didn’t.
The commissioners voted unanimously at a special meeting Sept. 5 to take the step, and at Tuesday’s budget hearing, by approving the revised numbers for the combined $6.95 million city budget, they indicated they continue to support the change.
The change means that the CRA will be under suspension for the next five years, as the city makes $32,500 annual payments from its general fund to make good on monies it was supposed to assign to the CRA dating back to 2015.
Known as tax increment financing (TIF), these monies represent the increase in taxes each year since 2014, when that was adopted as the base year and funding for the CRA was first approved.
The first tax year was 2015, with collections in late 2015 and early 2016. The first payment received from the county was in early 2016, for the 2015 tax year.
In 2016, and each year after that, the county dutifully paid its portion of these TIF funds into CRA coffers, growing each year from about $11,000 to nearly $50,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.
City Manager Ron Nalley said it is not yet clear whether the county and city will have to pay TIF funds for the 2019-20 fiscal year. The city’s portion would be roughly $76,000 in the upcoming year.
These funds, as they are paid back, will be placed in a line item that specifies they be used for future CRA projects if and when the CRA is resurrected. All other current CRA funds, including a $305,000 USDA rural business development grant, have been reallocated to different departments.
Nalley said that due to a clause in CRA Director Augusta West’s employment agreement, she must be given 90 days notice, which is why the CRA will cease on Jan. 1. He said Main Street, which has so far paid its half of West’s salary during the two years she has been employed, will continue to pay half of the roughly $13,200 she will be owed for the first three months of the new fiscal year, he said.
Commissioner Anita Grove pressed Tuesday that perhaps the 90-day requirement didn’t apply, because West’s inability to remedy the unpaid TIF money issue earlier might necessitate termination for cause. Her fellow commissioners did not pursue the matter further.
Grove was a sharp critic of West’s role at the CRA's Aug. 29 meeting, arguing that her report regarding work with the legislative delegation, and in securing a water and sewer funding loan from the USDA included worthy projects but that they did not fall under her duties as director of the CRA.
“We don’t have clear lines of delineation,” she said. “I’m a board member, I’m a commissioner and I don’t know what you do. That’s where I’m grasping at.
“Being a grants writer and the legislative liaison, I think that pulls a lot away from what we should be doing (as the CRA),” Grove said. “I don’t ever remember our tasking her with those.”
CRA Member Tom Morgan and Chair Jim Bachrach defended West’s efforts, arguing that it was part of a mutual agreement by Main Street and the CRA to have West on board to handle tasks the city needed to have completed.
Morgan said because of the CRA’s limited dollars, the board made the decision two years ago to concentrate on infrastructure, rather than dissipate the dollars on smaller projects.
“We could do little bitty projects or hire an executive director,” he said. “This board voted to do that.
“Because we did not have that deep city staff, we have failing infrastructure that needs big dollars. This board asked the executive director to help the administration to drive the legislative agenda. That’s what we’ve asked her to do for two years, and in that she found a mechanism," Morgan said.
Grove remained firm. “I believe we got here because we were focused on other things besides the CRA,” she said. “I don’t think that’s where the CRA needs to be.
“You don’t create a job for a person who needs a job,” she said. “I think it is healthy we have conversations about it.”
Bachrach said that the stewardship bill, which draws on the city’s status as an Area of Critical State Concern, will be re-introduced in the 2020 legislative session, with sponsorship from both State Senator Bill Montford and State Rep. Jason Shoaf.
“We got a great shot at making some real money for the city,” he said. “This lady has been the conduit for the city.”
Kevin Begos, Amy Hersey and Despina George, all facing the voters on the following Tuesday, each voiced their concerns about how Grove’s arguments were being handled by the CRA board. Others in the audience spoke up as well, including Apalachicola resident Leslie Coon, who took issue with the mayor’s claims several months ago that West’s work on the stewardship bill was being done on her own volunteer time.
The mayor has conceded that he may have misspoke, but has argued that the city acted appropriately in assigning duties to West.
“It is not abnormal in a small community for an employee to have many hats,” Johnson said. “It’s not strange she’s wearing different hats.”
Grove reminded her colleagues that the CRAS director job had not been advertised.
“The CRA is funded to do one thing,” she said. “We need to have a CRA director and it needs to stay within the boundaries of the CRA district. The more I read, the more I get upset about it. For two years I have not been comfortable at all.”
After a back and forth with Grove regarding the origins of the revamped CRA, Bachrach closed the Aug. 29 meeting with an appeal for unity.
“We’re all in this boat together. We’re trying to work together,” he said.