We need more people with courage to speak truth to power in Our Nations Oldest City.
Enough flummery, dupery, nincompoopery, waste, fraud, abuse, misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance. St. Johns County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK should be FIRED. Now.
Posted August 18, 2017 12:02 am - Updated August 18, 2017 06:58 am
By JARED KEEVER firstname.lastname@example.org
County, pastor at odds over direction of West Augustine CRA
A prominent member of the local black community is at odds with St. Johns County officials over what he suggests is a disingenuous effort by the county to include the input of the West Augustine Community Redevelopment Agency’s steering committee in decisions about the community’s fate.
Citing concerns about a perceived lack of earnestness and desire on the part of county officials to empower the committee to work to improve the predominantly black community, the Rev. Ron Rawls, of St. Paul AME Church, has announced he will be stepping down as the committee’s chair.
“On principal alone I cannot bring myself to sit in the seat of the chair of a committee that really has no authority to operate as designed by law,” Rawls wrote in the final paragraph of his two-page Aug. 14 “chairperson’s report.”
The report detailed three concerns that Rawls said he has had since assuming the role in June 2016, including that the steering committee is not included in the county’s annual budget process and the “unwillingness” of the CRA — which is made up of the members of the Board of County Commissioners — “to formally appoint CRA Steering Committee Members.”
In the report, Rawls goes on to detail the resolutions that were passed more than 15 years ago to form the CRA and implement its plan that was meant to address a list of seven issues for the West Augustine community including the elimination and reduction of “blighted conditions” as well as supporting the creation and provision of affordable housing, the expansion of sanitary sewer and water utilities, improvement of the roadway and storm water infrastructure, and others.
The programs for the community, which are to be implemented over the 30-year life of the CRA (due to expire in 2032), “will be phased in based on future community input and future revenues available for redevelopment from tax-increment revenues, county funding, grants, and other public or private resources,” the county’s website says.
But Rawls asserts the tax-increment revenues, or what he refers to in his letter as TIF, for “tax-increment financing,” were, in just the third year of the CRA’s existence, all dedicated to service the debt for the building of the Salomon Calhoun Center, a community center located on Duval Street.
“This action, which commits literally [all] of the actual resources designated to address the seven specifically listed purposes in Resolution 2000-146, speaks to the real intent of the Board of County Commission and the staff of St. Johns County,” Rawls wrote in his letter. “Even if residents didn’t understand what they were agreeing to, a minimally competent professional should have made this severely poor choice of an agreement aware to the Steering Committee. And by no means should the Agency have approved such an agreement.”
“What has literally been done, is that [all] the revenue being generated by the TIF in West Augustine are servicing the debt on a facility that from the outside appears to be utilized by less than 35% of the people who are funding the center,” he adds.
In a phone interview with The Record on Wednesday, Rawls said he only learned about the TIF situation in late June, which was after he went to county administrators and asked to be part of the budget process.
While he said he was invited to take part and the steering committee held meetings to get community feedback, it wasn’t until after the committee had put together its budget proposal and taken it to the county, that officials made him aware of two additional resolutions that tie up all of the TIF revenue for the Calhoun Center.
“So that pretty much disgusted me because I think, the whole time, I think they knew,” he said.
Rawls said the resolutions (one passed in 2005 and another in 2014) were news to him because, even though he had downloaded all applicable resolutions from the resolutions index on the County Clerk’s website, he had not found them there — learning only later that they could only be found in the online archive of the Board of County Commissioner’s meeting minutes.
In a Thursday evening email, responding to a list of questions about Rawls’ resignation and assertions regarding the resolutions, County communications director Michael Ryan said that “CRA Board meetings typically occur within the context of a regular Board of County Commissioners meeting. As such, their minutes and resolutions are included within the regular minutes of that particular board meeting.”
While there was some confusion about properly identifying the 2014 resolution, aditional questions as to why the 2005 resolution was not listed in the Clerk’s index of resolutions when others were, were referred to the Clerk’s Office.
While Ryan agrees in his email that the TIF money is tied up in the Calhoun Center, he also suggests there is more to the story and that good things have been done as a result of the CRA.
“To date, the West Augustine CRA has not covered its debt service and the County General Fund contributes to it annually to cover the debt,” he wrote. “In addition, the County has also made millions of dollars of water, wastewater, drainage, and road improvement within the West Augustine community during the tenure of the CRA and while funding the Solomon Calhoun Center.”
Tying up those TIF funds, though, coupled with a lack of any formal appointment process for steering committee members (Rawls said he was told the committee is structured differently and is considered a “volunteer community board”) suggests, according to Rawls, that the CRA and its steering committee was created only to allow the county to apply for things like Community Development Block Grants.
“They come to us and they have their meetings and they are able to report that they came to us and they use that to be awarded grants,” he said.
And it leaves the steering committee members without any real leverage to effect change by having control over the fate of its own money, he added.
“They go and ask the county to do different things and the county has the choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” he said. “But when you actually control your purse strings and say, ‘I want money budgetted specifically for this,’ you can directly address issues without having to go and ask.”
That, Rawls said, is what is needed to more properly address the seven items listed in the original CRA resolution.
“But I don’t think that it was ever really created for the people of West Augustine to really have that type of authority and leverage as it relates to money,” he said.