By: TUCKER MITCHELL
Published: August 09, 2011
Florence City Councilman Ed Robinson managed to revive his old plan to rebuild the city’s deteriorating inner city neighborhoods “house by house and block by block” at Monday’s city council meeting.
With a little help from his council colleagues, the program may not land the city in hot water with the federal government this time around.
At Monday’s meeting, council unanimously approved a $125,000 grant to the Florence Community Development Agency, for a program variously called “Fix a Block” and “Seeds for Grants.”
The money would be available for construction financing on properties in inner city neighborhoods where urban blight has become a problem. Generally speaking, the city would pay the contractor, in installments, during construction of the pre-sold homes, then get paid back immediately when the new resident obtains traditional mortgage financing from a bank.
But the program comes with what city attorney Jim Peterson called “safeguards on top of safeguards,” all designed essentially to protect the city’s interests by keeping the money out of the FCDA’s hands.
Implied, but not stated, at the meeting were concerns about handing over city dollars to an organization with a checkered history in regards to financial matters.
In 1994-95, the FCDA, with Robinson at its helm, became embroiled in a controversy with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over the fate of federal monies (some $62,500 according to city council minutes from 1994) given to the city for urban development projects, and then passed on to the FCDA.
HUD questioned the legitimacy of the expenditures and sought a full accounting. The city attempted to provide that, but could never coax a required report out of Robinson and other FCDA officials, and eventually had to bring legal action against the agency. To retain its funding status with HUD, the city had to pay back some of the money.
To avoid such an eventuality this time around, the city’s latest agreement with the FCDA calls for the city to select the builder and for the money to flow from the city directly to the builder, and from the bank, upon closing, directly to the city.
Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela said near the end of the discussion of the plan that, “Frankly I’ve got my concerns about Florence Community Development (Agency). … Not to get into that today, but that’s there.
“What we need to have is licensed contractors, with all money going directly to those contractors; and all money from the bank back to the city, without passing ‘go’ stopping off somewhere along the way. The (FCDA) won’t be touching money. I don’t mean to cast aspersion, but that gives me a level of comfort.”
Wukela enhanced his comfort level at the meeting by making the safeguards more stringent than those proposed in a draft by city staff that was ready at the beginning of the meeting. The additions included having the city select the builder and eliminating any confusion as to whether the monies would ever flow through the FCDA.
At the end of the day, Wukela felt confident they would not. Most of his council colleagues were also convinced.
Council conservatives Buddy Brand and Glynn Willis both voiced their satisfaction at the safeguards in place. Council member Steve Powers said that, “We’ll end up with tax income producing property, we’ll create some jobs and we’ll fix up some neighborhoods. In this economy, that’s all good things.”
For his part, Robinson seemed pleased that the plan was going through.
“This thing (the neighborhood revitalization) is incumbent on the development of downtown,” Robinson said. “New housing should be one of the first courses of action. If downtown is going to work, we need to work on particular areas around it, too.
“Right now,” said Robinson, “the downtown is falling apart and the neighborhood is falling apart. You’ve got to fix both. We can’t do one with out other. …”
Robinson’s countenance changed a bit when Wukela moved to amend the agreement and add the language with regard to the city picking the builder.
“We might have a problem there,” Robinson said.
The plan presented by the FCDA to the city suggested that certain builders would build bungalow-style houses in the decrepit neighborhoods at below-market rates, allowing the homes to be sold at a profit. The profit could revert to the FCDA, allowing it to build up funds that would eventually allow it to run the construction loan program on its own.
That doesn’t seem possible under the approved plan, since the money will not pass into FCDA hands.
Jeanne Downing, who is running the program for the FCDA, told Robinson not to worry.
“It’ll be all right,” Downing said. “We’ll get this handled.”
Profits or not, plans to get off the ground appear to be in place. HUD recently signed off on one aspect of the plan.
Dr. Mark Lawhorn, a Florence developer, is listed on the board of the FCDA sub group that put the plan together. And Robinson said that a piece of land just a few blocks away from McLeod Hospital had already been made available as the first building lot.