By Erika Webb
Sixty days to discuss CRAs. That's what the Volusia County Council decided at its meeting on March 21.
The council's proposed resolution to amend and restate policy for establishment, expansion, delegation of authority over and funding of CRAs will wait until June 6 for a vote.
For five Volusia cities determined to create new Community Redevelopment Areas, the next two months will be a time for case making. Council members are willing to listen, but unwilling to continue spending taxpayer dollars on marginally defined needs.
At its regular meeting on March 18, the Deltona City Commission discussed a County Council staff directive on Feb. 28 to create new parameters for incoming CRAs and to look at tightening the purse strings to those already in existence.
Deltona, Orange City, Ormond Beach, New Smyrna Beach and Edgewater want new CRAs and city officials are concerned they may miss out.
Orange City is the only one of the five which has submitted an application. And it will have to wait.
Deltona City Attorney Becky Vose told the commission procedures in the resolution contradict Florida Statutes, but the main concern is the resolution gets rid of all CRAs for practical purposes, that cities can have them, but won't gain from them.
Under Florida law (Chapter 163, Part III), local governments are able to designate zones as Community Redevelopment Areas when certain conditions exist. Locally generated tax revenue funds CRAs, therefore, they are not overseen by the state, but CRA plans must remain consistent with local governments' comprehensive plans.
Some examples of CRA-worthy conditions include substandard or inadequate structures, a shortage of affordable housing, inadequate infrastructure, insufficient roadways and inadequate parking.
Municipalities must document the existence of such conditions through a Finding of Necessity.
"Blighted" is the word used to summarize qualifying conditions, but concerns have been raised to the point of alarm over the definition as it pertains to CRAs.
As part of the application process for a new CRA, the County Council wants an analysis conducted by the property appraiser's office to determine whether properties in a proposed area have become devalued to a degree the area should be considered blighted.
The council wants applicants to prove a distinct decline in property values in the district over a five-year period.
Following a recommendation by Ormond Beach City Attorney Randy Hayes, Mayor Ed Kelley sent a letter to the council dated March 20, which stated the county's proposed resolution was "legally deficient in several respects."
Referring to Florida's Community Redevelopment Act, the letter stated: "The act, in part, defines 'blighted area' for purposes of establishing a community redevelopment area and recognizes the expenditure of public funds to eliminate blight serves an essential and valid public purpose."
The letter went on to advise county leaders that "it is clear that the county may not lawfully change the powers that are prescribed by the act."
At the Feb. 28 County Council meeting, Volusia County Property Appraiser Morgan Gilreath told the council anything can be considered blighted under the state's definition.
In a phone interview, Mr. Gilreath said it is not his intent to criticize or critique CRAs, but to "get information into the hands of decision makers."
He said he is conducting an analysis of data "in a way that's never been done," which will take several weeks to complete.
"The definition of blight describes the condition of buildings," he added. "One CRA has 2,700 acres of vacant land. How can that be blighted?"
Mr. Gilreath said when a proposed area is legitimately afflicted, a CRA serves a "noble purpose."
"(CRAs) allow a community to come in and help one that needs help," he said. "But there needs to be a lot of scrutiny around these things being created."
Some of Volusia's 15 existing CRAs -- in Daytona Beach, Daytona Beach Shores, DeLand, Holly Hill, New Smyrna Beach, Port Orange and South Daytona -- date back to the early 1980s, he said, adding that existing CRAs will get $10.5 million in funds this year.
The money would have gone to the county general fund and other funds.
Mr. Gilreath said 57 percent of the money was from outside the general fund.
That's the part the council wants to exempt from contributing to CRAs.
"It's my responsibility to manage the resources of Volusia County," Councilwoman Pat Northey said at the March 21 meeting. "I'm not looking to give 100 percent of the general fund away to a CRA."
When a CRA, is created a baseline is set using property-tax revenues inside the boundaries of the area. As property values and taxes increase, the funds generated go back into the redevelopment area for various projects.
The council said broad declines in property values in recent years could lead to substantial increases in the future and the county simply can't afford to give all of the revenue back to the CRAs.
In a phone interview, Councilwoman Northey said revenue driven by economic growth, not attributable to CRAs, should be used throughout the county, "so that we all enjoy the benefits of a rebounded economy."
"Now we've bottomed out, so cities want to set the low bar at the lowest point possible," Councilwoman Northey said. "They want the value of all the growth and we're saying 'time out.'"
That's why the council is proposing a graduated system to allow CRA retention of only those tax dollars over a certain percentage above the baseline.
If the baseline is $10 and tax revenue across the entire county grows to $11, anything above $11 generated within the CRA will be retained by the CRA, Councilwoman Northey explained.
Use of funds is subjective. Cities like Holly Hill, which used CRA funding for a Bike Week event last year, maintain that's a way to spur economic development in the area, which is the purpose of CRAs.
At the Ormond Beach City Commission meeting on March 19, Deputy Mayor Bill Partington said, "There are good ways to do CRAs and there are bad ways to do CRAs. I'd rather see them get rid of the bad ways to conduct a CRA, but allow people who are doing them well and benefitting from them be able to continue doing them."
The County Council agreed some dialogue with city leaders is necessary for the sake of good will between all entities, but it did not want too much time to dilute awareness about its CRA concerns.
"Changes have to be made to these CRAs," Councilman Josh Wagner said. "I think by doing the 60 days, so they can understand more our point of view and we can understand theirs ... I think it will help our relationship with the cities."