Delray Beach moves to maintain independent anti-blight taxing district

(Brandon Kruse/The Palm Beach Post) – DELRAY BEACH – A bicyclist rides past a pineapple mural in the Pineapple Grove neighborhood in Delray Beach. Pineapple Grove is known for its eclectic arts and shopping scene.

DELRAY BEACH — The city commission on Tuesday narrowly agreed to maintain an independent anti-blight taxing district that oversees areas that include the city’s downtown and Atlantic Avenue.

The Community Redevelopment Agency, a seven-member board appointed by the city, was established in 1985 to revitalize 20 percent of the city east of Interstate 95 between Lake Ida Road and Southwest 10th Street.

Map of Delray Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency district (Courtesy)

The city commission considered absorbing the independent board, which had a $17.5 million budget last year, and assuming the roles of CRA board members, similar to how the taxing districts are run in neighboring Boynton Beach and Boca Raton.

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But a packed and passionate room of residents – both for and against the dissolution of the CRA – at Tuesday’s city meeting swayed the commission to vote down the proposal to absorb the special taxing district, with Commissioners Mitch Katz and Shelly Petrolia voting in favor of it.

“There’s not one opportunity you don’t have to make sure that the CRA, as an independent body, will not be held accountable,” resident Chuck Ridley said of the commission-appointed board.

Ridley pointed to a scathing Miami-Dade County grand jury report released in February 2016 that criticized cities in which CRA boards members are also elected officials.

“We discovered several examples of CRA boards spending large amounts of taxpayer dollars on what appeared to be pet projects of the elected officials,” the grand jury report reads.

While the report doesn’t provide specific examples, it points to Delray Beach’s independent CRA board as an example of how anti-blight taxing districts should be run.

The city commission has in recent months disagreed with the Community Redevelopment Agency, often regarding major downtown developments, including the drawn-out process to bring luxury movie theater iPic to the city and the failed attempt to develop a mixed-use complex on West Atlantic Avenue.

Many of the CRA’s supporters pointed to the successes of the agency, including the revitalization of East Atlantic Avenue over the past three decades, the Pineapple Grove main street development and the relocation of the public library.

Some residents suggested replacing individual CRA board members, rather than abolishing the independent body.

“We have a model here that really can be worked with,” said resident Christina Morrison.

Others suggested city officials were better equipped to handle CRA duties.

“The projects that are now coming to the CRA are more and more complex … yet the CRA doesn’t have the advantage of a full city staff to provide research,” said resident Carolyn Patton.

Said resident Alan Schlossberg: “This reality will eliminate the constant need to oversee and correct the many problem created by the CRA.”

Several resident of the Northwest/Southwest neighborhoods west of Swinton Avenue, many of whom supported the retention of an independent CRA, chastised the attempt to dissolve the CRA just as it plans to prioritize areas of west of Swinton Avenue.

“But that carrot has been dangling out there from my perspective for way too long,” said Commissioner Petrolia, criticizing the delay of anti-blight efforts on West Atlantic Avenue. “This has been a promise that has been promised for a decade.”

Reggie Cox, the chairman of the CRA, said the problem was a “lack of communication” between the board and commission.

Mayor Cary Glickstein also pointed to improving communication as a better option.

Said Glickstein: “We can fix this through better communication and more accountability.”