Apalachicola city commissioners are moving forward with gathering proposals from auditing firms that they hope can complete their work in advance of the Florida legislative session, slated to run from Jan. 14 to March 13, 2020.


At their Nov. 19 meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a motion to have city staff seek requests for proposals from firms, in order to have them considered at the Dec. 3 meeting.


Mayor Kevin Begos told colleagues that State Sen. Bill Montford had advised against seeking state help through its Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.


“He said it doesn’t look likely and he doesn’t recommend it,“ said Begos. “They don’t do very many audits, and if they did take it up, it would stretch on for months and months. He suggested we should do a quicker, more focused audit.”


The mayor said rough estimates he has received from two accounting firms, Carr, Riggs & Ingram, and Roberson and Associates, indicated that based on the scope of the work, the cost would run in the neighborhood of $8,000 to $13,000.


Begos said Apalachicola businessman Harry Arnold has pledged $6,000 to help pay for an audit. State Rep. Jason Shoaf told the mayor he would like to see the audit done before the start of the legislative session.


“Each company stressed that they don’t ‘name names,”’ the mayor said. “It looks at particular areas of concern. They both said they could start it relatively quickly and finish it quickly.


“They either find things fairly quickly, or they don’t,” he said.


Commissioners have said that among the possible areas they would like to look at are a grant for the Mill Pond, which dates back about five or six years, as well as city-issued credit cards, transfers of Florida Department of Environmental Protection loan monies from the enterprise to the general fund, and insurance policies on city vehicles.


Commissioners also moved forward with discussion on reinvigorating the Community Redevelopment Authority, which was suspended over the summer due to city ad valorem property tax monies that had not been used to properly fund it.


The funding is based on TIF (tax increment financing) monies, which set a base year in 2015 that froze the tax base in this downtown and Hill district area, wit each subsequent year of valuation growth earmarked specifically for the CRA. The county has fulfilled its funding obligation each year, but the city has not, and now must repay about $160,000 into the CRA to rectify the problem.


Begos has proposed an all-volunteer CRA, and mentioned Liz Early has offered to serve as an unpaid. director.


“I think it’s worth a chance,” he said. “Every neighborhood I go, people do want to see tangible action. I think the CRA can definitely do this. I hear a lot of support from the community.”


Reinstating the CRA will enable it to receive about $45,000 in county tax monies that would otherwise be forfeited for the current fiscal year. In addition, the city would have to find about $75,000 in its ad valorem tax proceeds to fund the CRA, in addition to the annual repayments of about $35,000 it already has obligated.


Begos outlined three options for moving forward. If the city were to continue the suspension, it would lose the county CRA contribution, and pay only $35,000 for property tax proceeds to go towards retiring the debt.


If it were to reinstate the CRA, the city would not only receive the county’s $45,000 TIF money, but also pay its $75,000 TIF obligation. Begos said the city expenditure could be met through a $40,000 boost in payments from Duke Energy under the newly-approved franchise agreement, plus $15,000 in salaries from three commissioners, who are donating them back, and $35,000 in CRA budget repayment dollars already earmarked in the budget.


A third option, the mayor said, would be to reduce the CRA TIF rate by 25 percent, lessening both the city and state contribution.


Commissioner Despina George voiced caution. “I think we need to be careful,” she said. “Let’s not cherry pick the budget.


“We do have conflicting priorities. All of us are committed to paying down the city’s debts,” said George, noting that foregoing the purchase of a complete municipal government accounting software would account for some additional dollars.


Commissioner Adriane Elliott said she was inclined to support lowering the TIF rate. “We could always adjust that later,” she said.


“I agree not to suspend the funding,” said Commissioner Brenda Ash. “I’m all for not suspending the CRA and I would like to look at reducing the TIF rate.


City Manager Ron Nalley said he would have more exact numbers for the Dec. 3 meeting, which is also when City Attorney Kristy Banks is expected to provide details on any legal steps that would need to be taken regarding it, as well as in reference to a pending matter of having the city sever any formal ties with the Main Street organization.


“I’m fully supportive of the CRA, it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor for the city,” said George Mahr. “I’d figure out where we can find that $75,000. What are the revenue sources we have?


“It’s a lot of money to forego,” he said. “I’d consider that you commit to the $75,000 for this year and work on the problem, and figure out revenue sources or a reduction in expenses, or a combination of both.”