Two city parks long awaiting final renovations, such as playground equipment for what now resembles a sandpit and floodproofing to stop rain washouts, were assigned a contractor last week.
Burke Construction Group Inc. got the $1,127,807 contract for a project whose plans were completed Oct. 1, 2012, the City Commission decided at its Tuesday meeting.
But this million-dollar-plus city project, which stands in the Bahama Village neighborhood, isn't being paid for out of Key West's general fund.
Almost all that $1.1 million will come from Tax Increment Financing (TIF) -- property taxes culled from homeowners in the same neighborhood of Bahama Village and meant to stay right there.
Habitat for Humanity got its usual annual TIF check this year, $72,000, to help fix up homes in Bahama Village for poor owners. A community garden project, proposed by city staff, received $20,000 as start-up cash.
But Nelson English and Willie Ward parks aren't exactly marginalized spots in Key West, one elected leader purposely pointed out.
"That bothered me," City Commissioner Teri Johnston said moments before the panel unanimously approved the creative financing. "I have mixed feelings about this, because this is a public park used by the entire community, yet the funding for this is coming out of TIF. TIF funding goes for projects that benefit Bahama Village, but this is a community park."
Lopez said he shared the concern, but found nothing inconsistent with this form of funding.
"This is a much needed capital project," Lopez said. "It's actually one of the reasons that Tax Increment Financing actually exists."
Bahama Village, which comprises 16 city blocks that amount to less than a quarter of a square mile, is home to 1,414 people.
Yet the neighborhood's poverty rate is more than double that of the entire city and it has a "major minority population" of blacks on a majority white island, according to a November 2012 study by a Monroe County Health Department intern.
"It's separate and unequal and it's surrounded by predominantly high-income communities," said Alison Morales, who interviewed 342 residents while compiling data for the project.
Johnston noted that the commission has reserved $1 million from the recent sale of the city-owned land beneath the Pier House Caribbean Spa to pay for a structural analysis study of the Frederick Douglass Gym in Bahama Village.
The gym floor remains open, but the kitchen, office and restrooms have been rendered unsafe and closed off to the public.
"We pulled a million out of the Pier House sale for the Douglass Gym and we use TIF money for a public park," Johnston said.
Lopez replied, "There was not enough TIF money to do the Douglass Gym."
With the limited annual TIF awards, the gym project would have been forced to stop and start again with each budget cycle, Lopez said.
Going for the goal
The Bahama Village parks are headed toward completion due to a budget intervention by city planners.
They mapped out a financial plan to find the $1.1 million needed to finish the two parks -- bookends for the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, 300 Catherine St. -- taking pains to find prior TIF awards that hadn't been applied by the grant winners.
The commission's advisory board that reviews TIF grants and divvied up the $850,000 available this year, a record year not expected to repeat itself in 2014, reluctantly agreed to completely dismantle its original funding plan to accommodate the park renovations.
When Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Board members questioned if the city Planning Department was simply raiding the TIF fund, planners responded that it was the only way to get the project moving again.
Planners were in a bind: The original bid by the architect turned out to be off by some $800,000. Deadlines were approaching that could have wrecked the process and forced it back to square one.
Instead of punting, City Planner Don Craig's team went for the goal line, as his staff saw it.
With some recalculations, accepted by commissioners recently, the two city parks will get $927,289 from TIF money, $43,418 from "Infrastructure Surtax Fund" reserves, in which the city will tap $157,100 that was previously assigned to the Bahama Village band room renovation report, which was set aside along with that project.
Cost for the park master plan was budgeted and paid through a 2010 Bahama Village TIF allocation.
Earlier at Tuesday's commission meeting, when the contract award came up, Johnston pointed out that it's a big dollar project with no contingency allowed. That's a first for a Key West , she said.
"I will be fascinated to see how this works," Johnston said. "We are used to major contingencies on all of our bids and need to put a little more pressure on everyone else who does business with the city."
But the TIF funding came up specifically when the commission reconvened as the Community Redevelopment Agency, which governs TIF neighborhoods.
Nelson English and Willie Ward parks are due for some visible improvements: a new picnic shelter, landscaping, new lighting, a passenger drop-off area and new parking lot.
Restrooms that comply with federal law are planned for one side of the MLK Center.
"It's going to be a really nice park," Lopez said, name-checking city staff working on it. "They're trying to do everything right. Everybody that's had anything to do with this, I want to applaud you."