Last week’s informational workshop about the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency (PSJRA) was equal doses education and frustration.
The aim of the workshop was to provide a history of the PSJRA to date.
Mayor Mel Magidson suggested at last week’s meeting during which city commissioners began the process of dissolving the PSJRA board that fueling the debate over the agency’s future was a “lack of understanding of the facts” surrounding the history and operations of the redevelopment agency.
While the theme of the workshop was “how the agency got here”, it at times turned into a pitched discussion about the path traveled the past month by a slim majority of commissioners.
Those actions, one resident noted, had the community “in an uproar.”
PSJRA executive director Gail Alsobrook and Magidson, the lone commissioner to attend the workshop, tried to steer the discussion to broad strokes, but the tenor of the debate often echoed that on the commission the past three meetings.
In sum, commissioners and some residents express frustration with the agency’s operational model and board makeup.
“A lot of people don’t understand what is going on, period,” said resident Nathan Peters, Jr.
There is also equal, if not more, frustration in sectors of the community over a lack of understanding about the goal of the majority’s actions to dissolve the board.
“What is the problem?” said resident Gina Vicari. “Why are we trying to get rid of these un-paid people and replace them with the same five (city) commissioners? They have other issues on their plate.”
The bones of contention, as framed by residents Thursday night, could be placed under several large umbrellas.
The makeup of the board
There is a sense, said resident Tim Nelson, that the PSJRA board is “insular” and comprised of some of the same people who serve on other boards.
He questioned the extent to which the board would be open to new members and new ideas from others in the community.
“That’s why we feel left out of the loop,” Nelson said.
Alsobrook and Magidson repeatedly said the PSJRA board meetings are public, advertised in advance by statute.
“Any input from the public I think the board would be very receptive,” Alsobrook said, noting that PSJRA board meetings are lightly attended. “If the public gets involved the board will listen.”
Debra Barnes said she thought the board should expand its numbers and suggested PSJRA board members go into the community to fully grasp feelings of resistance reflected by the three commissioners voting to dissolve the board.
Board chair Boyd Pickett said he had done just that.
“I have been out in the community and I haven’t found anybody (who doesn’t approve of what we are doing) except the three commissioners and they won’t even return my calls,” Pickett said.
Further, several PSJRA board members said of the three commissioners, two, Commissioners Phil McCroan and William Thursbay had never attended a meeting.
The board is also a reflection of statutory-mandates concerning the makeup as well the goals set forth in the agency’s master plan.
“The board vets ideas for the benefit of the community,” said Alsobrook, who was noncommittal about her future if the board is dissolved. “They are helping the community and they are professionals who are volunteers. It is working on more levels than you can imagine.
“It is work. It is like a second job.”
Operations, spending, hiring, firing
Commissioners Thursbay and Bo Patterson have said they did not approve of a board that operates beyond the reach of voters, yet spends tax money and has the ability to hire and fire an executive director.
Board member Michael McKenzie said suggestions that spending is done outside the scope of governmental oversight is “not factually accurate.”
Alsobrook, as executive director, has an annual budget approved by the PSJRA board and city commissioners which she must operate the agency from. Once commissioners approve the budget, spending must be done under the same constraints by which the city and county spend their budgets, he said.
All spending, as well as who the PSJRA board can hire or fire, Magidson added, is subject to review and final approval by city commissioners. Nothing is done without their final knowledge and say-so.
“Nothing the board does is done without our approval,” Magidson repeatedly said.
Nelson questioned whether the PSJRA board conveys all pertinent information to the commission, providing any and all options on any given issue or project.
Maybe the most confusing aspect of the redevelopment agency, several residents said, was the Tax Increment Financing that funds operations.
A base year for property values within the original agency boundaries – roughly, give or take some footage, First Street to the midline of State 71 to just beyond Garrison Avenue- was established in 1989.
Of any increases in property values within the boundaries since, the redevelopment agency – and as Magidson said, by turn the city, – recoups 95 percent of that increase while the city receives the remainder.
No one’s taxes increase – resident Lorinda Gingell suggested taxes actually stay down because the redevelopment agency improves property values for all – and it’s not an additional tax; the agency simply is getting a slice.
The agency did not even draw funding until the early 2000s.
That funding, much less since the decline of the real estate market, can only be spent within the agency boundaries, Alsobrook said.
Further, it can only be spent on projects within the parameters of the agency’s master plan.
Property values in the expanded area – nearly all of the neighborhood of North Port St. Joe – established in 2009, have not rebounded yet to draw income.
That has not prevented the agency, as noted by board member Patti Blaylock, from using dollars to leverage for grant funding for the expanded area, such as for new sidewalks on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd and lights on David Langston Drive.
State law allows the agency to use a small percentage of dollars from the original area for such purposes, Alsobrook said.
Alsobrook summed up the workshop after 75 minutes by saying she hoped a solution other than “throwing the baby out with the bath water” by dissolving the board.
“I don’t understand why the city commission wants to take over and wants to stop you from doing a successful job,” said resident Eddie Fields.