I normally begin these screeds with a droll story, or some plagiarized fable to illustrate a point.
It adds a bit of levity and helps the reader better digest the serious issues of the day.
But sometimes you find a topic – such as chronic homelessness, or the wholesale misuse of public funds – that are far too serious for cheeky anecdotes.
Like many of you, I am enjoying the Daytona Beach News-Journal’s illuminating series, “Tarnished Jewel – Daytona’s Troubled Beachside.”
In fact, I read Sunday’s initial installment several times.
I had to.
Try as I might, I simply couldn’t grasp the enormity and byzantine nature of the problem – it was like entering a huge maze, going around-and-around, but never finding the cheese.
Don’t get me wrong, Eileen Zaffiro-Kean has done honest work.
The quality of her research and impeccable writing style have brought depth and life to one of the tragic local stories of our time. In fact, I can’t wait to read the remainder of what I am sure will be a very enlightening series on the wasteland that is Daytona beachside – our core “tourist area” and most important economic engine.
I don’t know about you, but just trying to follow the money was migraine-inducing.
What we know is that over the past three-decades, some $120-million in public funds (I say “some” because the exact amount is apparently in doubt) have been injected into various areas extending from Oak Ridge Boulevard south to East International Speedway Boulevard.
Primarily east of A-1-A.
With that as a rough starting point, Ms. Zaffiro-Kean takes us on a wild ride through the mean streets of the “Main Street Community Redevelopment Area” – a place that has come to epitomize the historical lack of vision, poor leadership and ineffective representation of a cavalcade of local elected and appointed officials.
It also showcases the greed of some prominent business and property owners who still believe throwing more tax dollars and incentives at developers is the answer to the problem – despite the lessons of the past.
Whenever public money is used to further private interests, regardless of the guise, that nexus invariably leads to abuse.
History teaches that when vast sums of money are placed in the hands of Halifax area politicians, a sizable portion will always find its way into the pockets of their cronies and political allies – and the rest will be used for huge “panacea projects” and even bigger debt.
In fact, the bigger the better.
When you have a lot of moving parts, money seems to fall through the cracks like sand through a sieve, and it becomes infinitely more difficult to follow.
In the case of the Main Street CRA, Daytona Beach officials are unable to adequately account for millions of dollars the city borrowed – and according to reports, the bulk of remaining CRA revenues will go to paying off bonds for 20-year old “improvements” related to the Ocean Walk/Hilton “e-zone” and other projects east of A-1-A.
Developments which have done absolutely nothing to improve long-suffering residential and commercial areas to the west.
Rather than learn from the mistakes of the past, city officials appear hell-bent on spending what little funds remain on a convoluted scheme to transform East ISB – taking out yet another multi-million-dollar bond for “property acquisition” (cough-cough, excuse me) and road construction, with the money eventually being reimbursed by the Florida Department of Transportation, yada, yada, yada.
Add the insanity of Daytona Beach officials purchasing residential and commercial properties in the CRA for hundreds of thousands over appraised value – then selling the lots for pennies on the dollar, or grossly mismanaging the assets – and you get the idea that there really is no one minding the switch.
Or is something more sinister at play?
For instance, late last year the city moved to purchase two beachside lots for the exorbitant price of $862,000. I say “exorbitant” because the assessed value of the parcels was just $125,000.
It’s shit like that I don’t understand?
In my view, Linda Smiley – an extremely bright observer of local government and lifelong resident of the beachside – got it right when she said, “it’s a joke that never worked out.”
“It sounds good in theory, but to me it’s a legal way for them to steal money and give it to their friends. The $67.7 million in bond debt was a joke for what we got. How about cleaning up the roads?”
That’s a bold statement – and an unfortunate truth.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for someone – anyone – to figure out where the money went, or why ostensibly smart people would willingly embarrass and expose themselves by massively overpaying for private real estate using public funds.
Let’s just say what everyone is thinking – something stinks here. Bad.
As the News-Journal pointed out, “When Glenn Ritchey became mayor a decade ago, one of his first acts was to call for an outside audit of CRA money. When the probe concluded about a year or two later, no scandal emerged. The auditors did point out concerns with some police costs billed to the CRA and the purchase of oceanfront land for more than fair market value. The city was given a tip sheet on how to spend CRA money along with a list of things to correct.”
Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. . . We gave them a tip sheet. Everything’s cool.
In my view, using CRA funds for dedicated police and code enforcement initiatives designed to take back crime-ridden areas is one of the few things the Main Street CRA did right.
With 35-years and $120-million dollars over the transom, it appears our “movers-and-shakers” (who are still wholly controlled by the Old Guard) are simply turning their backs to the east and are now looking west – developing thousands of new homes, investing in up-scale shopping areas, and building associated amenities – while seemingly ignoring the devastation (and potential) of the beachside.
Sometimes it’s easier just to start over from pine scrub, I guess.
What they forget is that our identity – our draw – will always remain “The World’s Most Famous Beach,” and we ignore that reality at our collective peril.
I guess it’s why I get so pissed-off and demoralized whenever I listen to our Chamber of Commerce and “Economic Development” types crow ad nauseum about their highfalutin accomplishments.
It’s all bullshit. Smoke and mirrors designed to deflect attention from the rotting core of our most important economic engine.
And while Ms. Zaffiro-Kean has done her level best to avoid openly embarrassing the guilty, trust me, there is plenty of blame to go around.
Whenever I criticize former Daytona Beach Mayor Glenn Richey for being as equally ineffective as his predecessors in bringing substantive change to the beachside, I receive angry notes from his supporters telling me what a great guy Glenn is – and how my harsh assessment is unfair, mean-spirited, etc., etc.
Look, I’m sure Mr. Richey is a nice guy – they all are. And don’t get me wrong, Mayor Richey is not solely to blame – not by a long-shot.
In my view, the list is long and distinguished.
But with the beachside literally crumbling under unrestrained blight, the plague of homelessness and abject dilapidation, the august “Richey Plaza” – an unfortunate self-congratulatory shrine pushed to reality by our out-of-touch local royalty – will, in my view, forever serve as a fitting monument to the lack of strategic vision, mismanagement, and abandonment which remains so visibly, and economically, evident to residents and visitors alike.
How embarrassing. How utterly tragic.