Thursday, January 18, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas considers special taxing districts for poor neighborhoods

Encouraged by nascent plans for a special taxing district south of downtown St. Petersburg, the Pinellas County Commission is considering using the same method of stoking development in four other low-income areas of the county.

East Tarpon Springs, North Greenwood, Highpoint, parts of Lealman, and neighborhoods south and west of downtown St. Petersburg have all been identified in a county report as trouble spots. Poverty rates are high in these areas, foreclosures are common, and what's potentially more troubling: These low-income neighborhoods are growing.

St. Petersburg officials are hoping to encourage urban renewal in those areas by establishing a Community Redevelopment Area, a step in allowing them to set up a special taxing district. If and when property values rise inside that district, which will be known as the South St. Petersburg CRA, the city would be able to spend the tax revenues on capital projects such as lighting and sewer improvements, or buying vacant land.

At first, city officials only looked into creating a taxing district for the Midtown area, said Rick Smith, who oversees the city's various CRAs. But local elected officials and a group of activists known as Agenda 2010 persuaded the city to widen the zone's boundaries. Current proposals show it extending from Second Avenue N to 30th Avenue S. On the west it would be bounded by 49th Street and on the east by Fourth Street.

At just over 7.5 square miles, that area is home to about 34,000 people and a foreclosure rate that is, on average, about 15 percent higher than in the rest of the city, Smith said.

Inside, the city is proposing to establish two taxing districts: one skinny commercial corridor running along 34th Street and another district surrounding businesses in the Melrose-Mercy neighborhood. Tax revenues from these areas would not go to the city or the county, but into a trust fund that can be spent only on projects inside those zones.

If other CRAs in the city are any indicator, it could be years before the districts generate money for capital projects, Smith said. For every $1 million increase in property values, the redevelopment trust fund would get only about $11,000, he estimated.

The county has created 22 of these redevelopment areas since 1977 — three have since expired — in 11 cities. But the South St. Petersburg CRA, which is likely to get approval from both the city and the county commission, is the first one focused on an area that is not part of a city's core downtown.

"Are we prepared do this in the other four areas? My opinion is we should," said Commissioner Ken Welch at a recent board meeting. "This is another tool in the tool kit."

Other commissioners said they would need to see how setting up more redevelopment areas would affect the county's tax revenues before endorsing the idea.

St. Petersburg officials plan to ask the City Council to approve the redevelopment area June 20, and then take their plans to the county in early July. County officials have yet to discuss setting up CRAs with the other cities that overlap with the four low-income areas, said County Administrator Bob LaSala.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

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