The City of Bradenton is moving forward with a plan to subsidize a downtown apartment project with millions of dollars in public money at the site of the former public defender’s office that was most recently owned by Manatee County. The generous investment is ostensibly to provide more “workforce” housing,” which city residents certainly could use. But at rents way north of what that class of renters can reasonably be expected to afford, the project looks like just another instance of elected officials giving a handout to a politically-connected developer.
Rent prices were not discussed at the June 2019 BOCC meeting, but commissioners expressed great enthusiasm about adding much-needed workforce housing to a downtown business district that has very little of such inventory. However, public backlash has been significant after it was revealed that rents will be around $1,400 for a 1BR unit and $1,600 for one with two bedrooms. That outrage is quite understandable, especially when one considers typical wages in the city’s workforce.
The city will waive around $400,000 in impact fees, as well as somewhere around $1.4 million that would otherwise have to be paid into a special tax district known as a TIF (Tax Incremental Financing), which subsidizes development or redevelopment and other public improvements like infrastructure by directing increases over the property tax funding levels that existed at the creation of the district to a fund that can be used for such projects. However, critics often note that the way the government essentially takes money from existing businesses in the district and then uses it to heavily subsidize potential nearby competition amounts to the government picking winners and losers. The investment will be administered by the city’s CRA (Community Reinvestment Act) board.
Adding to the appearance that the deal was being rammed through, a troubling number of details were not included in the packet and when Councilman Bill Sanders (the only member who seemed much interested in taking a closer look) had questions, he was not able to ask counsel. That’s because the city’s attorney, Scott Rudacille, works for Blalock Walters, a firm that also represents NDC. Considering that NDC has become essentially the de facto developer for the city—other vendors have complained that NDC routinely wins contracts with low bids only to get expensive “change orders” approved on consent agendas—it seems curious that the city would have hired an attorney from a firm that would so often have conflicts. To make matters worse in terms of red flags, Ward 2 city councilwoman Marianne Barnebey’s husband is also an attorney at the firm.
Sanders has raised these concerns in the past and the city hired outside counsel to represent it on matters where such a conflict arises, only that attorney wasn’t present at the meeting. City Administrator Carl Callahan assured Sanders that the conflict attorney had been sent the document and had no problem with it, but Sanders wondered how much that could mean given how many details were left out of the packet, while also pointing out that without the ability to ask counsel to advise on specific parts of the agreement, a blanket signing off might not mean much aside from whether it was kosher from a legal standpoint.
Sanders has been the most consistent voice of good government for the council since his upset win over Bemis Smith in 2018. He raised similar concerns about the new city parking garage—the contract for which also went to NDC—which was also rich in public subsidy and has since drawn criticism for dedicating a significant number of its 400 spaces to private entities when it was sold to taxpayers as a way to increase “public” parking downtown. Sanders says he likes all of the projects but explained that a good end project doesn’t mean the public and other downtown businesses aren’t being taken for a ride when the vendors receive such giveaways.
“You can have a great public project that benefits the community,” Sanders told me, “but if it’s worth five million and you pay ten, at the end of the day, the public is still getting ripped off.”
However, going off-script that way, even for such a reasonable position, is a somewhat novel idea when it comes to Bradenton City Council meetings, especially those in which NDC has a project being considered. Callahan, who has often been criticized for having personal business interests and partnerships that conflict with his role as city administrator, seemed noticeably short with Sanders, who couldn’t be blamed for having questions on such an expensive deal, especially considering that his packet was missing so much pertinent information.
With Harold Byrd having given up his seat to make an unsuccessful run at the mayor’s office, Sanders was unable to find an ally on the issue. Ward 3 councilman, Patrick Roff, who sometimes finds the will to speak up on controversial items, rarely does so when it involves Allen who’s been a generous donor to Roff’s campaigns. Roff’s contribution amounted to, That’s in line with what rents cost. Yes, councilman, that’s the very purpose of investing public money to create and sustain “workforce housing” for a community in which outside wealth not derived from the local “workforce” drives up the cost of housing to a point where those who service that wealth cannot afford to live in the very communities they serve.
Dennis “Mitch” Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. He is also the host of Punk Rock Politix on YouTube. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. Dennis’s latest novel, Sacred Hearts, is available here.