Apalachicola’s Community Redevelopment Agency, a targeted section of commercial property that runs from the waterfront and downtown through the Hill’s traditional business district and out along the U.S. 98 corridor, is attracting a lot of interest these days.
An unusually large audience of residents gathered Sept. 13 for the CRA’s annual budget workshop, which focused on how best to spend about $90,000 in monies available for the 2018-19 fiscal year.
City Manager Ron Nalley’s overall budget, which was approved 6-1 with City Commissioner Anita Grove opposed, actually totaled about $314,000 but that included a sought-after $225,000 rural development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, earmarked for additional sidewalks, parking and lighting in the Bowery District, which has not yet cleared all the funding hurdles.
The largest chunk of the roughly $89,000 available for expenditures will go for personnel services, amounting to $51,000 paid to fund the salary and benefits for CRA Director Augusta West.
But half of this amount, $25,000, comes from a contribution by Main Street, and the other half from the tax increment funding (TIF) that goes to fund the CRA.
In 2014, the city commission created the TIF which allows the district to receive property tax revenues each year that are above and beyond those established in the base year five years ago. In other words, the appraised value of the property within the designated district was “frozen” in 2014, with all that continuing to go to the city, county, school districts and other taxing authorities that normally receive ad valorem tax revenue.
Taxes received in excess of the frozen base value, which next year will amount to about $45,000, flow to the CRA to be spent within the downtown as well as Franklin, Gorrie and City Squares, the traditional commercial district in the African-American community, and the Highway 98 corridor.
Of the remaining $38,000, $16,000 is transferred to the general fund to cover a portion of Nalley’s salary. Another $15,000 is earmarked for micro-projects, and the remaining $8,000 for operating expenses, travel and training and miscellaneous professional services.
Grove’s opposition to the budget stemmed mainly from her belief that West’s personal services agreement, which was approved last year by the city commission, CRA and Main Street, and given the blessing of City Attorney Pat Floyd, should have been subject to advertising for applicants, as are other city jobs.
“It doesn’t make sense to me how you can have a government employee, and have a 501(c)3 and give that person state retirement as a fulltime employee. Have you asked FRS (the Florida Retirement System)?” asked Apalachicola resident Despina George. “It seems kind of scammy to me.”
West got strong support from the two at-large CRA members, as well as City Commissioner Jimmy Eillott, who praised her for her work with former city engineer Bill McCartney in securing a $1.1 million Triumph grant. “Without their work and dedication, we wouldn’t have gotten that,” he said.
Grove has asked that West’s contract be reviewed, but Mayor Van Johnson has argued that this should only be done if all city employees are reviewed as well, and the remaining members of the seven-person board – Commissioners Mitchell Bartley, Brenda Ash and Jimmy Elliott, as well as CRA Chairman Jim Bachrach and at-large member Tom Morgan – have shown no interest in revisiting West’s hiring.
Neither have the other members yet backed Grove’s proposals to rotate the two at-large members each year, or to add additional members to the CRA. The former died for lack of a second at the August meeting, and the expansion has yet to be taken up.
Last week’s meeting spent most of the time reviewing a list, drawn up by West, of proposed micro-projects that could be funded by the CRA.
The Rev. Themo Patriotis opened by outlining a request for $2,000 to help fund a roughly $5,000 project to create a paddle boat launch site under the bridge near Battery Park. He said Franklin County is a growing paddle –friendly destination, and that he would like to see Apalachicola join Carrabelle’s new Island View Park as the only such launch sites in along the water between Tallahassee and Panama City.
He said contractor Jason White has estimated that removing concrete debris in the water, and adding rocks and sand to create a natural surface, could cost about $5,000. West said the site could be handicap-accessible, another plus in the grant process.
“We can make it more developed as funds become more accessible,” said Patriotis.
West said Main Street has raised $2,000 towards the project thus far. “It’s a great partnership between several organizations,” she said.
West said as a no-cost micro-project, plans are proceeding with Duke Energy to put in a charging station for electric cars. She said the only condition is that it must be near a transformer, and that a city lot near Water Street could be used.
The end users pay for their charging time, so there are no costs to the city.
A contribution of $3,000 for a video project focusing on downtown Apalachicola was proposed by West. She said the 60-second video will be produced by a film school grad, a marketing expert, and could be used by most anyone to promote Apalachicola.
She said the project has received support from private donors, as well as a $10,000 donation from Main Street and a $5,000 Visit Florida grant, but has not been embraced by the TDC.
“We requested that but Curt Blair said we can’t do that for Apalachicola,” said Morgan. “The TDC should do it, but they haven’t and they won’t.”
Johnson asked that it be included in the budget and that he would see if he could convince his fellow members on the TDC board that it was a worthwhile project.
“We shouldn’t cut it out,” he said. “If we fail, we fail. If we don’t, we don’t.”
The micro-projects also include $2,000 for repairs to the handicap ramp at Holy Family Senior Center. West said “it may need a complete do-owner” and that she had spoken to Sheriff A.J. Smith to see if his volunteer work crew would be interested in helping.
Grove said she believed this money would be better spent on infrastructure within the CRA than on promoting tourism for downtown.
The microprojects also include $5,500 for additional signs downtown, mainly to clean and replace stop signs in the CRA, while another $1,500 was suggested for benches and trash cans in the Bowery District, and $1,000 for a bench at the “pocket Park” on land donated for that purpose to the city.
“We already have four parks in the city,” said audience member Krystal Hernandez. “I can’t get them helped to be maintained.”
Apalachicola resident Robin Vroegop, a member of the recreation committee, said she would like to see more shade trees planted, and perhaps the addition of shade trellises. Discussion followed on planting shade trees in Riverfront Park, but board member Mitchell Bartley objected, saying the park has never has trees.
Lastly, the suggested micro-projects include $500 to fund trolley tours on the Martin Luther King holiday.
George raised questions about the status of the trolley. West said the city owns it, and that Main Street covers the cost of maintaining it.
“I don’t know where Main Street ends and the city begins,” said George.
Other suggestions that emerged were doing some restriping on Commerce Street and Avenue D, making repairs to the restroom at the community center at Battery Park and perhaps creating a parking spot earmarked for golf carts.