Hallandale Beach commissioners reject call for new legal opinion on spending
BY WILLIAM GJEBRE
Hallandale Beach City Commissioners have shot down a request from a legislative committee that it seek a new opinion from the Florida Attorney General on how community redevelopment funds can be spent and abide by that ruling.
Sitting as directors of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), commissioners voted 3-2 Wednesday night to approve telling the Florida Joint Legislative Joint Auditing Committee that the CRA “cannot at this time advocate seeking the requested” Attorney General opinion.
The action raised the likelihood that state legislators could order an audit of the city’s CRA spending.
“I’m not concerned if they order an audit; they can do that regardless,” CRA Attorney Steven Zelkowitz said after the Wednesday night meeting.
The state committee got involved after reviewing a highly critical report by the Broward Inspector General’s Office that found Hallandale’s CRA had “grossly mismanaged” and misspent millions of tax dollars.
The Inspector General’s report relied heavily on a 2010 Attorney General’s opinion that said CRA funds should be used for “brick and mortar” projects. City officials, however, have questioned that interpretation of state law and said that the use of CRA funds for things like handouts to local nonprofit groups and city fireworks displays are legitimate expenditures.
Hallandale’s defensive posture appears to have prompted the legislators to suggest the city seek a new legal opinion that it would agree to live by.
The city’s resistance to that idea was clear in a four-page report to the legislators that was submitted to the CRA’s board — Hallandale’s five commissioners for their approval.
“The questions the committee has requested to be posed to the Attorney General will have an impact on [CRA’s] on a statewide basis,” the report said. “The city and [its CRA] cannot legally bind themselves to abide by a yet-to-be issued [opinion].”
Zelkowitz, City Manager Renee C. Miller and City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield wrote the report.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Commissioner Bill Julian, who with Commissioner Michele Lazarow favored seeking the Attorney General’s opinion but were outvoted.
“I’m not surprised” by the vote, Lazarow said.
Mayor Joy Cooper, who attended via phone, Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy and Commissioner Anthony Sanders voted for the report. After the meeting, Lewy said the city has made numerous improvements to the CRA recently.
In response to several other matters raised by the state committee, commissioners agreed to reply that it is their position that state law and a few case rulings do not prohibit the questioned expenditures. “In fact, the statutes and case law provide a broad framework for the expenditure of CRA monies,” the report said.
On another issue, the city’s report to the legislature noted that while Hallandale had co-mingled city funds with CRA money in the past — which the Inspector General said was improper — it established a separate CRA trust in May 2012 and reported the fund balance is approximately $15 million at present.
At the meeting, commissioners also unanimously approved an eight-page report outlining the city’s response to recommendations made by the Inspector General.
The report — a copy of which will be sent to the state audit committee — said Hallandale has:
• Stabilized CRA staff by naming City Manager Miller executive director and hiring a new deputy city manager to serve as CRA director and supervise key departments that interact with the CRA.
• Provided training to top city officials regarding provisions of the state law, Chapter 163, governing CRAs, and established a process and standards for awarding funds/grants to nonprofit groups, as well as on-going performance evaluation.
• Trained staff on policies and procedures for all CRA programs; established legal and financial reviews of loans and other financial funds, and implemented controls to monitor all CRA expenditures.
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