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09/25/2014 Our View

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City officials must address CRA deficienies

There’s no denying city officials have done a poor job of wisely investing Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) funds into worthwhile projects on the list of master projects since the program’s inception years ago.
There is a lot of bitter history behind it, and deservedly so.
In the past four years alone, the city has unwisely used more than $100,000 to pave an overflow parking lot; pumped $300,000 into the now-defunct telecommunications system; bought a house for a now-vacant community development coordinator; and spent untold thousands more in salary expenditures. That’s more than a half a million dollars laid to waste, with nothing to show for it.
What a shame too, especially as there are a number of projects that amount of money could be used for, most notably the extension of the bicycle trail into the heart of the downtown district.
Imagine if you will, improved sidewalks, street signage and other much-needed improvements to both East
and West Pennsylvania Avenue.
The public, both the business community and the citizens, deserve answers.
We need to know how the city plans to make a wholehearted, sincere effort to begin implementing plans for improved sidewalks, signage and streetscaping projects that will not only benefit businesses, but the city and community as a whole.
The Council needs to dust off the plans for CRA funds and begin mapping out a workable solution to begin implementing projects. The public needs to see a comprehensive map of the current CRA district, how much they are currently worth and how much they might potentially generate with necessary
improvements.
But to establish such a timeline, we need money to complete projects, which should make the most sense and allow us to get the most return for our money, or bang for the buck.
We need to know how officials plan to reimburse the CRA for the $300,000 expenditure wasted on keeping Greenlight Communications afloat. It might have been legal for the Council to approve the transfer of funds, but it certainly wasn’t a proper decision. The Council and City Manager Eddie Esch need to make this happen, as a sign of good faith they are diligently working toward repairing the fractured divide between City Hall and the business community, easily the largest taxpayers in the city.
That means officials need to hold off on hiring a new community development director, or manager, if you will. However, if city officials are chomping at the bit to hire another employee, they need to consider finding a person who has experience writing grants, which could be paired with CRA money.
Sell the house. It was an absurd idea to purchase a house as office space for the community development director. Once the house is sold, those funds would be returned to the CRA account.
Quit diverting salaries from CRA funds. Esch recently admitted the CRA is an area he is not well-versed in and lacks the necessary expertise to manage. Yet, according to the most recent city budget, Esch claims 20 percent of his workday is spent managing the CRA, with nothing to show for it.
Replace the current CRA Advisory Board with business owners, residents and other individuals who understand the intricacies of a CRA, how it works, or how it is supposed to work, and the best approaches to investing funds. If necessary, have them speak to officials from the cities of Ocala, Crystal River and Mount Dora, to understand and see their respective plans in action. The current format of allowing the Council to serve as the advisory board was an ill-advised mistake.
We want a complete financial report of the CRA since its inception, and the complete amount of money the city has netted. In addition, we want to see a list of projects the city has completed in conjunction with the master plan and the cost of each project as well as salary expenditures throughout that time period.
In this era of transparency within the city government, that shouldn’t be too much to ask, nor should it be a difficult request to fulfill.