Apalachicola may reinstate the CRA, but not with a paid director.

The Apalachicola city commission moved closer towards a series of changes last week that will define the city’s relationship with Main Street, and possibly reinstate the CRA.


At a workshop held prior to the Nov. 5 meeting, the commissioners discussed the future of the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency), with Mayor Kevin Begos pressing for the reinstatement of the agency. The work of the CRA was suspended at the tail end of the previous administration after city officials agreed to a plan to repay from city property tax monies, over five years, about $160,000 in previous obligations due the CRA.


These monies, generated by tax incremental financing (TIF) revenues generate from ad valorem taxes within the designated CRA area, largely comprising the downtown, Mill Pond and Hill areas, had gone unpaid, while the county had continued to pay its fair share into the CRA coffers.


Begos began the discussion by noting that CRA Director Augusta West, whose salary had been split between Main Street funding and CRA monies, had announced she was stepping down from her CRA post, effective Nov. 5. She remains as director of the non-profit Main Street organization.


In addition, both CRA Chair Jim Bachrach, who also chairs the Main Street group, and CRA Vice Chair Tom Morgan have submitted their resignations from the CRA.


Begos said he believes the CRA board, which also includes the five city commissioners, should add additional citizen members when it replaces Bach and Morgan.


He said he would like to return to an earlier CRA model, when it was an all-volunteer organization without a paid director, and that the board be more diverse, representing all sectors of the CRA community.


“We had bankers, a lot of merchants from downtown, citizens from the Hill and from different parts of the district,” said Commissioner Anita Grove, who was instrumental in directing that earlier version of the CRA in her capacity as director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce.


“We have to have a plan and we need to abide by that plan,” she said. “We as a commission have to discuss whether we can fund the CRA.We need to have that discussion first; I think we have a ways to go.”


Begos said there had not been a formal vote to defund the CRA by the previous commission, and that from tis inception, the CRA has not had an interlocal agreement with the county that outlines their mutual obligations.


“We suspended payments to the CRA. We would now need to come back with an interlocal agreement,” said City Manager Ron Nalley.


Begos said he has discussed the matter with County Commission Chair Noah Lockley, who noted that the county is prepared to pay its $48,000 share of the TIF funding for the 2019-20 fiscal year.


Begos said that with the CRA suspension, the city would lose that funding, and would continue to pay $35,000 per year to cover its arrearages.


He said a recent boost of about $50,000 in Duke Energy payments from a newly-approved 10-year franchise agreement could cover these annual payments.


Begos said his talk with Carrabelle Mayor Brenda La Paz, which had to remedy CRA funding problems there that exceeded $1 million, have indicated to him that it will be a “a very long term process.”


“We don’t have to do it on a set schedule,” he said. “If we let it sunset we lose that $48,000.”


He also cited talks with Apalachicola businessman George Mahr, who he said had told him “leaving that $48,000 on the table is a questionable thing to do.”


While Commissioner Brenda Ash sought additional information, and had questions about the process Begos is following in working to reinstate the CRA, she did not indicate she opposed the idea of reinstatement.


“I have no problem with waiting,” said the mayor, while noting that “if we don’t make a decision by Dec. 31, it will sunset. We can wait until the mid-November meeting.”


Commissioner Despina George said a careful review of the general fund budget needs to be made before any reinstatement is approved. “We need to look at all budget amendments before making a decision,” she said. “We can reallocate personnel costs that were coming out of the general fund.”


Begos said he did not favor using CRA funds in the future to cover city staffers’ time in working with CRA projects. “New rules don’t explicitly prohibit it, but they (CRA experts) feel it’s not best practices,” he said.


Commissioner Adriane Elliott said she would like a street sign replacement project be the CRA’s first order of business within its area, which stretches from Battery park to the Mill Pond, and from the river to Ninth Street.


“It wouldn’t cost a lot and that little bit would be visible, that we're looking after people in the community,” she said. “And then we can start looking after the blight.”


The commissioners heard some views on the CRA’s potential priorities from Kevin Martina, who spoke on behalf of the Mill Pond shrimpers, and from Nissie McNair, a Hill resident.


Martina said he would like to see CRA funds go to fix up the Mill Pond, and make up for what he said was about $123,000 that coule have been used in the past for this effort, but wasn’t.


McNair, who owns a game room on the ill, said she would like to see CRA funds go towards projects that could include filling in ditches, or replacing stop signs. “You can’t even read it, it’s grown up with algae,” she said.


In a later discussion about the future of the city’s partnership with Main Street, Elliott said that with West stepping down, and the CRA suspended, “to me that seems pretty much like that partnership is dissolved.


“Main Street at its core is (for) economic development in the downtown area. We already have tourist development,” she said. “I want to see the CRA taking care of the people.


“It’s a huge conflict of interest having Main Street be the chair of the CRA,” Elliott said. “I think we need to end that CRA partnership. We need representatives from the Hill, one from the Mill Ponds, and a downtown representative as well.”


The city’s partnership predates the creation of the director position, to 2011, and it is that more umbrella arrangement that commissioners discussed ending.


“Right now Main Street is listed on the website, and it has described itself as an economic development partner with the city of Apalachicola,” said Begos, advocating the group have a similar status as all the other city’s non-profits.


George noted that the Main Street-CRA arrangement was not a partnership, but an employee sharing agreement, and that the overall affiliation of Main Street with the city is not necessarily supported by city residents and businesses,


“Apalachicola Main Street does not have a large representation among the business community,” she said. “I recommend we research whether there was a prior resolution, and rescind that, and that Main Street operate on the same basis as every other organization.


“We have a number of them,” she said. “We shouldn’t financially support them or make them part of our city.”


Grove backed separating CRA and Main Street, and that the CRA, if it is reinstated, function with a broad-based committee.


Ash cited Main Street’s contributions to the city. “They have provided economic benefit, the main event being the third of July,” she said. “We don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face. We want to be able to work with all entities. We need to be mindful of any potential unintended consequences.”


Bachrach rose to speak. “I understand your feelings,” he said. “There’s been a lots of confusion, been misinformation.


“Not one dime of city money has ever been transferred to Main Street,” he said. “In fact, quite the opposite. We transferred funds to pay half her salary.”


Bachrach’s assertion drew a swift challenge from George, who noted that in each of two years prior to West’s hiring as a city employee, the city contributed $25,000 from its legal settlement with BP towards Main Street.


“And our loan was in default,” she said.


Elliott moved to rescind the August 11, 2011 city resolution that established a partnership with Main Street, and to address Main Street’s presence as part of an overhaul to the city’s website.


On the advice of City Attorney Kristy Banks, the commissioners agreed to table the motion to ensure the proper steps are followed. “My strong suspicion is there is a process for doing what you’re contemplating doing,” she said.


Apalachicola resident Jody Rosenbaum spoke out in favor of Main Street. “I think you need to address the benefits that an organization like Main Street has to offer,” she said. “There is room for all those organizations when they work together.”


Begos said that the city could turn to another organization to handle fireworks, and noted that John Solomon, the chamber’s director, has indicated that the group might possibly be willing to take it over.


Mahr also spoke out in favor of Main Street. “In this community there should be room for many organizations,” he said. “There’s room for everyone here.”