ST. PETE BEACH — Officials are once again seeking to set aside tax dollars to fund the rehabilitation of public infrastructure in aging sections of the city.
Those "blighted" areas include much of the city's downtown, particularly along Corey Avenue, as well as along much of Gulf Boulevard, which is characterized by aging businesses and hotels.
Officials hope the unanimous commission vote last week to seek special county and state designation as a Community Redevelopment Area could jump-start private reinvestment as well.
"This will stimulate the cleaning up of our city," Mayor Steve McFarlin said.
The money would come from property tax revenues collected not only by the city, but the county and all other taxing agencies.
Once a fixed date for the start of the CRA is established, all growth in property tax revenues will be set aside in a fund that the city can use for rebuilding roads, installing upgraded lighting, beautification and other public projects.
The money cannot be spent on private property or projects.
"We are blighted because of the age of our structures," City Manager Mike Bonfield said. "Once residential areas have become commercial, there has been a lack of reinvestment in the properties."
Many of the city's hotels also qualified as blighted, according to Bonfield, because they are more than 30 years old.
The process to set up the CRA could take a year, but once completed the city special tax district funds will accumulate for initial period of up to 30 years that could be renewed for at least another 10 years.
The rules governing CRA designation are defined by the state and supervised by the county.
A 2005 consultant's report commissioned by the city cited five out of 14 eligible conditions of slum or blight that would qualify in the city's downtown area, the hotel strip along Gulf Boulevard and several other major roadways as eligible for special tax district designation:
• defective or inadequate streets, parking or transportation;
• faulty property layout;
• unsanitary or unsafe conditions;
• property deterioration; and
• inadequate and outdated building patterns.
The City Commission then adopted the CRA "finding of necessity" as required by the state. The proposal was reviewed in 2006 by the Pinellas County Commission, which asked that the Dolphin Village shopping center be excluded from the CRA.
The county also required the city to set the CRA boundaries and approve the revised blight study.
"Then the recession hit, the lawsuits hit and we stopped any work on the CRA," Bonfield said to city commissioners last week.
Since 2005, city redevelopment rules were embroiled in intense political fighting, resulting in a series of special referendum elections and multiple lawsuits.
Now that the economy is turning around and the development-related lawsuits are "hopefully nearing the end," Bonfield said it was time to reactivate the CRA.
"We have the framework done," he said. "Every year of delay is more of the tax increment you will lose."
Next year, for the first time since 2008, the city property values are projected to increase.
The set-aside tax revenues will build over time, eventually creating a fund that will address the areas' problems and be paid for by taxpayers who own the affected properties.
Bonfield said because of the delays, it is necessary to basically start over, develop a scope of work for the CRA plan and then ask for renewed approval by the county.
The county must also approve a specific list of projects for the area.
Bill Pyle, one of the residents who filed several lawsuits against the city over its development rules, called the need for a CRA "absurd" and objected to designating any area of the city as blighted or a slum.
"I do not feel any area of our lovely city is blighted," Pyle said.