One overriding theme in Tampa’s city elections this spring was the need to focus more resources on struggling neighborhoods. Toward that end, several City Council members have suggested shifting control of some tax-funded redevelopment efforts, putting them under the control of nonprofits instead of City Hall. This looks like a recipe for waste, mismanagement and a lack of accountability.
The winning candidates for mayor and council generally agreed more needs to be done to improve East Tampa and West Tampa, two neighborhoods with a large number of minority residents and pockets of blight that critics say the city has overlooked while redeveloping a glittery downtown. One possibility, several council members have suggested, is revamping Tampa’s Community Redevelopment Areas - separate revenue-raising districts for nine distinct areas of the city. Tax dollars generated by rising property values in those areas is poured back into the districts, paying for needs within each area. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Charlie Frago reported this month, several council members suggested that nonprofits might make the decision-making process more inclusive than management from City Hall.
But that change could be a big loser for residents, businesses and taxpayers. The redevelopment agencies already have community advisory boards that serve as the eyes and ears for what local residents want. These boards include residents and business owners who have lived in the districts for years or decades. They bring an ownership stake and an institutional history with the district that no nonprofit could match.
Critics also complain that redevelopment funds are spent on city salaries. But having city staff working with the redevelopment agencies is good for the neighborhoods and taxpayers alike. City staffers contribute valuable expertise in planning, property development, legal counsel, finance and other areas. Salaries consume only a tiny fraction of the redevelopment monies, about 4 percent of all revenues. The potential savings is hardly a legitimate selling point.
Having these operations under direct city control ensures some consistency in planning. The funds pay for everything from mass transit downtown to pressure washing Ybor City’s historic streets and paying to beautify commercial corridors. Imagine the waste if a stand-alone nonprofit spent tens of thousands of dollars to plant trees along a street where the city had intended to widen the sidewalks.
The redevelopment agencies fund key public investments and core city services in targeted areas, projects the city augments with larger spending on public safety, job development, transportation and public utilities. The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing. And elected council members oversee the redevelopment funds. Shifting the management to private nonprofits would reduce transparency and create an accountability gap.
This move looks less like a thoughtful policy proposal than an opening bid to challenge new Mayor Jane Castor. If this involves more than offering false hopes to the poorer neighborhoods and yanking the administration’s chain, supporters have several months before the issue comes back to council to make a better argument.