Florida Keys News
Monday, February 3, 2014
City ready to dole out TIF funds to Bahama Village projects

A housing nonprofit, two churches, a youth program and a local family deserve funding from the Bahama Village Tax Increment Funding, property taxes reserved to alleviate blight in the historic neighborhood of Key West, an appointed committee has said.

City commissioners will review the recommendations after their 6 p.m. meeting Tuesday at Old City Hall.

In all, the Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee reviewed six applications for 2014 TIF money, which comes directly from property owners in the community.

About $456,000 in TIF funding has been collected, but the committee agreed in November to save at least $40,000 for long-range plans and $10,000 for committee member and staff training this year.

Committee members who voted on the grants for 2014 were: chairman Aaron Castillo, vice-chairwoman Patricia Eables, Clifford Mingo, Annette Mobley, Rudy Rivas and the Rev. Randy Becker.

The committee is not obligated to dole out all of the money available.

One standout grant recommendation is the $70,000 requested by Eugene and Francine Edwards to reconstruct their one-story Conch house at 213 Petronia St., where the land is owned by the Housing Authority of Key West.

The Key West family has been in financial limbo due in part to the demise of the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust (BCCLT).

The Edwards family is asking for $70,000 from the city to complete a total $170,000 reconstruction of their home at 213 Petronia St.

"The home has been vacant since 2007, its family displaced," the application said.

The house has been in the Edwards family for generations.

Both the city's Historic Architectural Review Commission and the housing authority have approved plans for renovations.

"Renovation plans were stalled for lack of funding," the application said. "The project will reduce blight by refurbishment of a derelict structure into an attractive, energy efficient home."

Attorney Hugh Morgan has represented the family before the committee.

"It's the poster home for blight," Morgan said at a December meeting at Old City Hall. "Over a decade ago I agreed to represent the family for the purpose of saving the home."

BCCLT's mission was to sell affordable homes in the predominantly. black Bahama Village neighborhood.

In March 2012, Assistant State Attorney Mark Wilson convinced jurors that the nonprofit's head, Norma Jean Sawyer, misspent at least $200,000 -- of a $750,000 state grant BCCLT had been awarded -- on day-to-day operations, a new office for the nonprofit, as well as dinners and a charter fishing trip for her and her assistant, who was her boyfriend at the time.

The grant money was supposed to be restricted to home renovation work.

Eugene Edwards, Yvonne Edwards and Francine Edwards remain in limbo.

Sawyer was released from prison Nov. 30 and remains on supervised parole in Jacksonville, according to state Department of Corrections records.

The Edwards family has a 99-year lease and will match the grant with $100,000 of its own, if city commissioners approve it.

It would be the second largest grant awarded with the TIF money in 2014.

In the past, the committee has rejected applications by homeowners, "where a small number of people are directly benefitted by the project," City Planner Nicole Malo wrote, instead preferring to fund nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity, which is set to receive $74,000 to help repair and improve homes in Bahama Village.

Habitat's local chapter is set to receive the largest TIF grant in 2014.

Malo called the Petronia Street recommendation by the committee "an unusually large funding request for a single family residence."

The committee, however, deemed the Edwards family's application worthy of TIF funds since the home renovation was held up only by the scandal

A program that combines forces from Key West High School, Monroe County Extension Services, Habitat for Humanity, the city and the nonprofit A Positive Step is set to receive $61,213.

The program will have students identifying 150 single family properties in Bahama Village and record energy inefficiencies in each.

Students will be trained and supervised to weatherize, repair and replace fixtures within the homes to save energy and water, with the homeowner's permission.

Data will be gathered and later shared with the city's sustainability division and Habitat.

The Bethel AME Church asked for $20,990 to install a heating ventilation and air conditioning system for the Fellowship Hall and the parsonage. But the committee decided only to recommend $10,000, and only for the Fellowship Hall space, not the parsonage.

Central air will make the hall much more accessible to the public, the Rev. Randy Becker said.

In the past, HVAC systems have been considered by the committee as "non-essential" items for churches, city staff said.

"The parsonage has window air conditioning units which are repairable and serviceable," Malo wrote.

Bethel AME did not respond to city staff's letter asking for additional information, Malo added.

The Newman United Methodist Church should receive the $62,190 it requested to repair the building, 410 Truman Ave., the committee said.

"The stained glass windows hold both economic and cultural value for the property and the community," Malo wrote.

The church's project budget has not changed since the initial request in 2010, Malo said, and members have spent the TIF money "responsibly and appropriately."

A sixth application was denied a cent by the committee. A Miami Lakes man proposed a three-day event set in Bahama Village "focusing on Thought, Culture and Wellness within the African Diaspora. The influences of Caribbean, African-American and Afro-Latino culture is evident in all of Key West," the application said.

The Key West Africana Festival, a Florida nonprofit, didn't meet the basic criteria, the board found.

Organizers asked for $85,000, the largest request of the batch by nearly $4,600.

"This program does NOT have as its focus the elimination of blight, the repair of structures nor the improvement of public infrastructure or public places," wrote city planner Nicole Malo, in a report to City Manager Bob Vitas. "This program is simply a training opportunity for individuals."

Malo also called the program's marketing budget and costs such as table computers unreasonable, "because the effects of the program are very small in scope and it lacks the ability to alleviate blight."

Becker was the lone member of the six-member panel to propose funding the festival, at $50,000. But he later agreed with his colleagues.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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