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City eyes buying leftover land in RDA scramble
A plan hastily hatched in January to tie up Ceres Redevelopment Agency dollars in an attempt to keep the state of California from stealing them, was amended Monday.

Officials scrapped a list of numerous city projects approved in favor of two new major projects. The move corrects a problem of using redevelopment funds on city projects as "questionable expenditures," said City Attorney Mike Lyions.

A second problem is that the original list of projects left vulnerable $18.1 million in redevelopment bond proceeds if the CRA is eventually abolished in the groundshaking state move.

The City Council, acting as the CRA board, committed the assets to a:

• $5.7 million plan to buy up and redevelop the vacant lands owned by Caltrans opposite Ceres High School establishment of a retail center. It also aims to buy up and eliminate the Lazy Wheels Mobilehome Park, considered an eyesore by community standards.

• A $24 million, 15-year project to rehabilitate water and sewer lines in downtown Ceres and begin a marketing effort to develop downtown with housing, a theater, offices and new retail stores.

There are no guarantees that the state won't take the funds anyway, said Lyions.

California Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to dissolve all redevelopment agencies in California and taking billions to make up for the state's budget shortfalls. The action may be declared unconstitutional. His proposal, if the state Legislature signs on, would take effect in time for the crafting of the 2011-12 budget.

Lyions said he doesn't believe the state has the constitutional authority to seize what's not theirs but suggested committing Ceres' RDA funds is a measure that may protect them. Lyions said that Propositions 1a and 22 passed by the voters were intended to shield redevelopment funds from state grabs.

Also on Monday, the City Council and CRA board voted to grant deed six CRA owned assets - including many lots in downtown and the Daniel Whitmore Home - to the city as a way of keeping the state's hands off.

Mayor Chris Vierra said he appreciated the city's efforts to keep the state's hands off its money and assets, saying, "I don't think I could stomach seeing them auctioning off the Daniel Whitmore Home in Ceres for their own personal financial needs."

In January the city acted on an emergency basis after learning of Brown's plan. A unanimous vote committed funding to a host of city projects approved in 2008 as part of the Capital Improvement Project program. The grand total of $5.3 million was greater than the CRA's available cash pool of $4.6 million, said Finance Director Sheila Cumberland.

In what is termed the "Whitmore Retail Project," the city would buy leftover Whitmore/Hwy. 99 interchange right of way now owned by Caltrans as well as acquire and clear away the Lazy Wheels Mobilehome Park. The plan calls for assistance in relocating existing tenants. The city would also prepare the property to be developed as a retail center with freeway access, and develop a marketing strategy.

"The idea, of course," said Lyions, "is that by using these monies in this way, the city would be able to redevelop that area and create something that would be good for the city, particularly at a very high profile location."