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City spending raises public input questions

In 2007, Naples City Council approved a $30,000 request from the police department to install surveillance cameras in River Park, where most of the city’s poor, black residents live.

The cameras were purchased with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The federal money, distributed through the Community Development Block Grant Program, is intended to eliminate blight or prop up low-income communities.

In this case, the police chief said at the time the grant money was used to pay for surveillance to reduce drug dealing and “associated conditions in and around” the community.

Made aware of the cameras recently, River Park community leaders said the project should have received an extensive public review to ensure the city isn’t spying on the neighborhood. They also said the area needs other improvements, like sidewalks and street lighting. And some city officials, while not objecting to the use of the cameras, questioned whether they should have been purchased with a grant meant to support the poor area, not help incarcerate its residents.

The project received no public vetting from City Council. The police cameras were approved unanimously without council discussion.

The cameras project highlights what critics say is the city’s failure in handling the CDBG money during the past decade — grant proposals receive little to no public input, and City Council is usually silent on the issue.

In the past 10 years of regular meetings with CDBG applications on the agenda, City Council has discussed the projects, on average, for less than two minutes per meeting, according to a review of council records. There have been no public speakers. The projects are almost always placed on consent agendas and receive unanimous votes.

“It’s a failure of council,” said Penny Taylor, a former vice-mayor — now a county commissioner — who was unaware she voted yes to the police cameras until last week when notified by a reporter. “It appears that we got sloppy.”

The city says the idea for the police cameras came out of a public meeting held at the River Park Community Center in February 2007, but couldn’t produce any records from the meeting. Six residents and River Park supporters couldn’t recall any community discussions about the cameras.

A police department spokesperson said the cameras purchased with the grant money are no longer used, but police still occasionally use surveillance to monitor drug activity.

There’s no evidence that the city has reached out to River Park residents for CDBG project ideas in at least the past five years. And City Council’s almost-always swift approval of CDBG applications is a far cry from its conferring on projects in other parts of the city.

There was a four-hour debate two weeks ago on the redevelopment of a single block on Fifth Avenue South. The city is spending $500,000 to redo a landscaping project on Gulfshore Boulevard North after a large bloc of wealthy voters complained. And if Baker Park ever gets built, there will be years’ worth of records of council shouting matches, consultant contracts and millions of dollars in fundraising.

“I am asking the question, ‘Why?'” Harold Weeks said about the disparity in public input. Weeks, president of the Collier County chapter of the NAACP, suggested there should be a community committee that could vet the CDBG projects each year.

“I feel that the people in the neighborhood aren’t getting the proper notification,” Weeks said.

Mayor John Sorey said he supports the committee and will reach out to residents to help set it up. Sorey also said he has regularly communicated with River Park residents as mayor and, before that, as a council member.

“It may not be a public meeting, but the reality is the area of where we can use [the grant], there is always a lot of discussion with the folks in that area,” Sorey said.

However, the Rev. Lonnie Mills, pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, said the community has unaddressed needs. There are sidewalks only on the south side of Fifth Avenue North, and no sidewalks on the intersecting 13th and 14th streets. Kids from the neighborhood who walk to Gulfview Middle School have to cross four lanes of traffic on Goodlette-Frank Road, and another four lanes across U.S. 41.

And Mills said street lighting could be improved.

“All of this is for safety reasons,” Mills said.

Mills, who moved to the area in 2011, said he hasn’t attended a public meeting or heard about the CDBG projects from a City Council member, including Sorey, whom Mills has endorsed in the upcoming election.

The only way a River Park resident learns about the projects, Mills said, is by “seeing what’s being done, when it’s done.”

Naples is a sub-recipient of the CDBG money from Collier County, which votes on the annual grant plan that includes the city’s projects. Typically, Naples has been allotted between $100,000 and $140,000 a year, but annual funding has dropped to about $80,000 in the past few years.

HUD requires the county to publish a draft of its annual plan, including Naples’ CDBG proposal, for 30 days each year. But there’s only been a smattering of public comments on the plans in the past decade.

Eighty-nine percent of the city’s black residents live in River Park, according to 2010 census data. According to the most recent estimates from the American Community Survey, River Park households have a median income of about $22,600 annually. That’s less than a third of the city’s overall annual median income of roughly $78,600.

The city says it has addressed community needs with non-CDBG projects, like the building of the $1.6 million River Park pool. The pool, which opened in 2012, was discussed by the city’s design and finance committees, and through public meetings.

Still, it’s typical that one of the only items City Council receives in a given year that proposes spending in River Park is the city’s CDBG application. In the past decade, Naples has used the grant money for projects that have increased the neighborhood’s parking capability and enhanced the area’s landscaping, among other improvements.

But city officials have also publicly expressed a desire to use the grants only for aesthetic improvements to a neighborhood that’s part of the area the city has targeted for redevelopment. Staff has said it uses City Council policy as direction for developing the projects.

City Councilman Sam Saad, chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency, said it’s “absolutely” appropriate that the city uses the CDBG money for projects on the CRA’s capital improvements list.

“There’s a lot of overlap in the needs of the community and the purposes of these funds,” Saad said.

Willie Anthony, a longtime River Park resident who has served on numerous city boards, says he can’t recall a CDBG public meeting since 2007.

About previous meetings, Anthony said, “It wasn’t a situation where we were given the opportunity to generate some recommendations. It was a meeting where they had determined what they intended to do with the money and I think they came to us to see if we objected.”

Taylor said it’s a “slap in the face” to River Park that the city and the county isn’t holding meetings to address residents’ needs. “We’re servants of the people,” Taylor said. “It’s not something that should be decided in a room by staff, or even by the City Council without proper input.”

City of Naples CDBG Projects (2006-14)

Year – Description –  Cost

2006 – Fun Time Early Child Academy Playground / Police Cameras – $77,961

2007 – Fifth Avenue North Parking / Landscaping – $40,730

2008 – River Park Community Center Roof Repair – $73,200

2009 – Creation of Cambridge-Perry Park – $103,474

2010 – Anthony Park Landscaping – $108,606

2011 – Fifth Avenue North Parking – $72,243

2012 – River Park Playground – $105,835

2013 – Goodlette-Frank Road Intersection Improvements – $91,693

2014 – Goodlette-Frank Road Intersection Improvements – $79,807

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