ST. PETE BEACH — What started out as a procedural meeting to clean up language in the city’s Comprehensive Plan opened up a sore spot over Pinellas County’s past rejection of the city’s request to establish two Community Redevelopment Agency districts. City commissioners may consider trying for the designation once again.
Harboring powerful recollections of being soundly rebuffed by the County Commission for a CRA designation at a hearing in February 2016, the issue came back into focus for city commissioners when a consultant innocently mentioned adoption of CRA districts will be removed in the Comprehensive Plan’s revision as “an outdated reference.”
Back then, St. Pete Beach officials asked that its downtown business district and Eighth Avenue be approved by the County Commission for Community Redevelopment District funding.
When cities like Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Gulfport or St. Petersburg are granted CRA district designation, the taxable rate the year it is awarded is set as a base year; then, after that year, a portion of the increase in property taxes paid in the CRA goes towards funding projects within the district.
In 2016, county commissioners soundly destroyed St. Pete Beach’s hope of being awarded with two CRA districts. During that hearing, County Commissioner Pat Gerard told city officials to raise the city’s millage rate to pay for needed improvement projects or seek other revenue sources. County Commissioner Karen Seel suggested the city raise revenue by going after code violators to fix blighted areas.
County officials in the Planning Division were concerned about setting precedent, because St. Pete Beach would be the first and only Community Redevelopment Area on the barrier islands. County planning staff also said the city failed to include “people-based strategies” in its request to be approved for a CRA.
During the Nov. 10 Comprehensive Plan revision review, consultants from Kimley-Horn noted the city’s attempt to form a Community Redevelopment District was not approved by Forward Pinellas, the county planning agency.
Shelby Hughes, civil engineer and Kimley-Horn associate, told commissioners, “While we are not removing the Community Redevelopment District, we are renaming it to be a Special Planning Area.”
City Manager Alex Rey told commissioners nothing the commission is doing prohibits the city from reapplying. “Remember, when you are applying for a Community Redevelopment Area, you are capturing a percentage of the county taxes that would go to other areas. Given the economic vitality the city has today, if this didn’t get approved many years ago, when we were not in as good a position as we are today, I would think the likelihood of us getting one approved today is even less than what we had before.”
Rey added “it would be a hard lift” to convince people that we need more of the countywide money than what the city is getting from its municipal taxes.”
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski told Rey “I accept your answer, but I don’t. … There’s a lot of kind of heartburn that goes with this whole issue, I just have to say it. There are plenty examples in this county where the CRAs have been reupped and reupped and reupped, including in downtown St. Pete, which seems to be doing pretty fine to me.
“Just from a political standpoint, I get a little bit of steam off here,” Friszolowski explained. “I like the county commissioners. We get along good with the county. The county commission changed over time in philosophy. We add a lot of vitality to this county, and that would have kept a lot of taxes that would have gone to the county in St. Pete Beach. I, for one, would like us to be talking with the county commissioners individually, and maybe collectively, to see if we can work better, because there are plenty examples of CRAs in this county that got reapproved and I don’t see why St. Pete Beach should be an exception to the rule.”
City attorney Andrew Dickman told commissioners they could develop a policy, goal or objective in the Comprehensive Plan to signal that “you are not giving up on this.”
Friszolowski responded, “It’s a good idea to put it in a policy that that’s our goal, to revisit that with the county.”
Mayor Al Johnson added: “I think so.”