BY CHAZ STEVENS
After spending the last year of my life ringing up those in charge — from Broward to Tallahassee seeking an outside review of Lauderdale Lakes, someone finally listened.
And finally … finally someone rallied to my cause and the cause of the taxpayers: County Commissioner Stacy Ritter.
Stacy Ritter To The Rescue
In letters to Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Joint Legislative Auditing Committee I obtained exclusively, Ritter said financial problems are so bad in the financially beleaguered West Broward city that “I believe the City, its residents and the residents of Broward County may be forced to bail out Lauderdale Lakes.”
Citing concerns about “possible improprieties and/or illegalities” in the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, Ritter asked for an investigation from Bondi
She also requested a formal audit from state Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, and state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, who head the joint committee.
Ritter’s letters to Tallahassee said the CRA/City “appears to have failed to appropriate” $3.2 million in the 2012 and 2013 budgets which would violate state law. Broward County may be due a refund for money it gave the CRA because of this failure, she wrote.
“The CRA issue alone is troubling and suggests financial irresponsibility and mismanagement by the City and its Administration. In the case of Lauderdale Lakes, the CRA Board is the City Commission. I believe the City, its residents and the residents of Broward County may be forced to bail out Lauderdale Lakes. Currently the City is perilously close to its 10-mill cap. Its families are burdened by perhaps the highest tax rate in the state yet I do not see strong immediate remedial measures being taken. Some on the City Commission have recently discussed raises for employees and elected officials. While there is nothing illegal in this action, it raises questions of the Cities (sic) commitment and understanding of its predicament,” she wrote the state legislative committee.
Bully for her.
“Broward County and our residents have invested a great deal to save the city of Lauderdale Lakes,” Ritter said in an email to me. “It’s imperative that we get answers to our repeated questions about Lauderdale Lakes’ fiscal health and responsibility. We have too much at stake to let these questions remain unanswered.”
This effort by Ritter stems from my yearlong investigation of the Lauderdale Lakes Community Redevelopment Agency.
Community Redevelopment Agencies, or CRAs, such as the one in Lauderdale Lakes, can be found in twelve other Broward municipalities. Their role is to breath life into depleted neighborhoods by creating economic opportunity and improving housing stock. When properly executed — Orlando’s Church Street and the Ft. Lauderdale beachfront — the results are spectacular.
And now for the bad news.
CRAs are publicly financed through Tax Incremental Funding — 55% from the county taxpayer’s wallet. By law, this money cannot be transferred to a city’s General Fund; unfortunately, a few appear to have illegally dipped into those accounts.
And in Lauderdale Lakes, this leaves their CRA, after accounting for debt load servicing and six-figure staff salaries, just enough coin to maintain a community vegetable garden.
Stories on my MyActsof Sedition.com website here and here indicate millions of dollars of questionable practices, including possible mishandling by the CRA of loans, payments of non-CRA employees with lawfully restricted CRA funds, projects that appeared to benefit only private investors and revenue shortfalls at Educational and Cultural Center of Lauderdale Lakes.
Ritter concludes her letters with, “I would like to request that your office commences a complete investigation into the Lauderdale Lakes CRA and City’s General Fund. Broward County has a substantial financial stake in this matter. As an elected official and a resident of Broward County, I am concerned that the County has potential liability as we approved the establishment of the CRA.”