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Monday, Aug 03, 2015
Local News

$20,000 contract for downtown study draws controversy


SEBRING - During the next couple of months, the Community Redevelopment Agency will be updating its 20-year vision for downtown Sebring with the help of the Florida Institute of Government based at University of South Florida.

When discussion of that appeared on the city council agenda last week and seemed to be a routine item, it instead turned into unexpected controversy over the cost of the study, plans for how it would be conducted and even whether the CRA's existence complies with state law.

Some of the objections focused on the $20,000 cost of the study. Others involved the lack of public participation in some facets of the process.

The goal of the study is to come up with the direction in which the CRA should move during the next decade in its efforts to improve the downtown area, updating the 20-year plan during the middle stages.

City Councilman John Clark questioned the need for another study. He said state law only allows for a CRA to exist 30 years, although a city council can add another 10 years. Clark said he wasn't aware the council had approved an extension.

"The intent all along was for it to be temporary, not permanent," Clark said.

He also questioned whether the downtown has improved a lot during the past 30 years and added that he believes more of the funding should be going toward improving housing within the CRA area.

Robin Hinote, director of the CRA, said when the CRA did its 20-year study that extended the life of the CRA.

Hinote said that during the study Clark and others can express their views of where they feel the CRA should be headed during the next decade. She said the CRA has spent money on housing improvements.

But Clark said he sees no justification to pay $20,000 to the Florida Institute of Government to conduct an interview of people concerned with the CRA and hold a joint meeting in November between the CRA board of directors and the city council.

"We can just meet and discusss the CRA without spending $20,000," he said.

Councilman John Griffin said he feels the CRA is doing a good job and added that Clark has made known previously his concerns about how well the CRA functioned.

As for the study, Kelly Cosgrave, chairwoman of the CRA's board of directors, said the CRA wanted an unbiased facilitator, as opposed to someone connected with the CRA or the city council.

The idea is for "all of us to work together facilitated by an unbiased mediator," Cosgrave said.

The Florida Institute of Government does more than provide unbiased facilitation, said director Angela Crist.

Crist said the institute draws on experts from throughout Florida who "work very closely with the CRA," she said.

The process will involve interviewing 24 people who have a stake in downtown and members of the city council and the CRA board, and holding a workshop with the CRA and the city council to help come back with recommendations next, she said.

Even after the study is completed, the institute continues helping the CRA, she said.

"Our intent is not to do this project and just walk away," she said.

Other objections raised during the Council meeting involved the openness of the study.

Mary Jane Stanley, who represented the institute at the meeting, said the interviews conducted before the workshop would be held privately so that people would speak freely. She also said that the public would not be allowed to comment during the workshop.

Councilman Andrew Fells said he questioned participating in interviews that are not open to the public.

Objections also were raised to not allowing workshop attendees to voice their views.

Council members favored having a public comment session at the end of the workshop.

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