Miami-Dade commission grills Beacon Council but doesn't cut funding
By Zachary S. Fagenson
County commissioners last week slammed the Beacon Council, the county's official economic development organization, saying it continually fails to report how it uses its portion of the county's local business tax revenues in some of the Miami-Dade's most destitute areas.
"Over a year ago, on May 5, 2009, I was the prime sponsor of a resolution for the commission auditor to prepare quarterly reports of the Beacon Council's use of that 8%" of the business tax revenues it receives, said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson. The "Beacon Council told us at that time funds were being incorporated in the Beacon Council's general fund and being applied to county as whole.
"As a result, this board stressed the purposed of this 8% was to be used for economically disadvantaged areas," she added.
And for the past 22 months, Ms. Edmonson continued, county departments have asked for reports on the Beacon Council's use of the funds, about $350,000 annually, to no avail.
"We have gone out on several occasions and asked for detailed accounts of expenditures," said Commission Auditor Charles Anderson. They "say they cannot provide it. They say it goes into the operating fund and benefits the county as a whole."
In response, Ms. Edmonson proposed an ordinance, which failed after a split vote, redirecting the funds to the Miami-Dade County Economic Advocacy Trust, which works to address socio-economic disparities in Miami-Dade's black community, and a resolution directing the mayor not to renew the county's economic partnership with the Beacon Council, which also has funding from its business members.
After lengthy discussion at the meeting she withdrew her proposal to strip the Beacon Council of its county tax funds, saying she hoped the comments would inspire the agency to comply with commission requests.
"After speaking with the [Beacon Council] chair I am fully satisfied she is willing to work with this commission… to address issues that need to be addressed," Ms. Edmonson said. It is "unacceptable that an agency partnering with this county would refuse to accept a board policy."
Beacon officials declined to comment, but an agency spokesperson provided the letter President and CEO Frank Nero sent to Mayor Carlos Alvarez after the items were added to the commission agenda.
And though the commission's prime concern seemed to be the Beacon Council's reporting of the use of its moneys, Mr. Nero's letter deemed it impossible for the agency to implement a strategy specifically for the county's Targeted Urban Areas.
“As the Beacon Council is already required by state statute to implement a comprehensive strategy for the entire county,” Mr. Nero wrote, “the county cannot legally require the Beacon Council to create a separate less than ‘comprehensive’ strategy which includes limiting the use of a specific amount of funds to a certain subset of areas within the county.”
But the council did include a recent county audit that found that the public-private organization, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, assisted 84 businesses during fiscal 2007-2008 that “resulted in an estimated 2,974 new jobs and $250 million in capital investment.”
“Thirty-four or 40% of these businesses were located or expanded within an Enterprise and/or Empowerment Zone,” it continued.
And since 2000, officials wrote, the council has completed “144 projects in the Enterprise Zone, which created 11,025 new jobs, added over 5.1 million new square feet and over $725 million in new capital investment.”
The letter, also signed by Beacon Council Chair Alexandra Villoch, a Miami Herald senior executive, said the county’s Targeted Urban Areas “are generally within the County’s Enterprise Zones… [and] are eligible for additional state incentives.”
But Miami-Dade’s Chief Economist Robert D. Cruz pointed out during the meeting that though there is “considerable overlap [between] TUAs and enterprise zones, they are not the same.”
Enterprise Zones are determined by the state while the boundaries of the 19 Targeted Urban Areas are set by the county.
And a county attorney during the meeting said the county’s legal department “would disagree” with the agency’s claim on whether its funds can be broken out to benefit specific areas of the county.
Yet Ms. Edmonson said she expects a report on the Beacon Council’s spending in those areas near the end of this year. And whatever the report shows, she said, she wants to see more focus on county’s impoverished areas.
“I think it all comes down to marketing. I would like to see them market these TUAs to put forth every effort they can to bring in business, thereby bringing in jobs,” Ms. Edmonson said in a later interview. “I have not seen a sincere effort in the past to this and this really what I have been asking for and what I’m looking for in the future.
“I’m not at war with the Beacon Council. My interest is to get these areas serviced.”