County hall tiptoes toward vital watershed change of focus
Written by Michael Lewis on November 12, 2014
Nine hours into a meeting last week, commissioners voting to begin a $200,000 study that could lead to their most vital action in decades leaked revealing thoughts.
Miami-Dade, one said, is failing to serve residents who don’t live in cities.
County studies, several commissioners admitted, are often tools to prevent action rather than expedite it.
The firm hired to study creation of cities was told to talk privately with commissioners to reach their desired results.
But commissioners didn’t want to hire any firm. They’d wanted a university to study the future shape of county governance but none of the seven schools that were asked applied.
Commissioners eventually did hire PGM Associates – which until recently had a six-year contract to study how well county transit is performing – to “evaluate alternative governmental structures” as the county looks to incorporate and annex areas that now aren’t in cities.
The study is long overdue.
The county charter of the 1950s envisioned a future in which every resident would live in a city or village to handle strictly local concerns while county hall oversaw the region.
But that web of cities was never filled in. We have 34 cities but the rest of the county is home to almost half the people.
Nor did the county focus on the big picture.
Sewer and water needs were so ignored for decades that the county now faces about $13 billion in expenses just to get by. Transportation funds were stripped when a new infrastructure tax was raped to maintain service. Housing, environment, land use, economic development and other regional issues become competitions as commissioners seek the most for their areas.
Meanwhile, a county larger than 65 nations with an economy larger than two-thirds of all nations treats strictly local issues with less funds, time or attention than a city would.
Rather than finish a two-tier system with regional issues at county hall and local matters in city halls, the county froze all incorporations for six years,
Now, several commissioners say they’ve changed. Some have commission-approved committees hard at work studying cities for their districts.
Dennis Moss, who fought incorporations for years, said “I’ve evolved over time” about the need for cities in his district “because we’re not going to be able to do it in Miami-Dade County.” The county has tried to help, he said, but “it all goes [away] in the budget crunch,” so let cities do it.
But some oppose new cities. Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said residents of Schenley Park and Little Gables in her district don’t want cities because in nearby cities people in smaller homes pay twice as much tax.
Signs reading “No Incorporations” have been posted for almost a year in her Northeast Miami-Dade district, said Sally Heyman. But looking at the “doughnut holes” – unincorporated patches surrounded by cities – she backs the study.
“I saw this as possibly offering for the first time a perspective on what it means to the county,” she said.
That perspective is vital. As sponsor Barbara Jordan said, the study seeks the true impact on the rest of the county when areas become cities. It “gives us information that we don’t have and should have had years ago before we even allowed a lot of the municipalities that are created today to ever move forward…”
Plans for the study began a year ago, when commissioners voted 11-0 to ask Mayor Carlos Gimenez to hire someone to do it. They’d hoped for a university, and Ms. Jordan said she even told Florida International University the job was coming.
Administrators did ask seven universities – FIU, the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, Florida State University, the University of Florida, Rutgers in New Jersey and the University of Virginia – but none applied, which Ms. Sosa termed “very unusual.”
But it’s understandable: some commissioners asked that the study team talk with each commissioner to learn their desires. No proper university study aims to satisfy individual officials. Firms that seek county contracts might be more malleable.
Filling the county with cities and villages so that county hall can concentrate on the region is vital. Mr. Moss is correct that unincorporated areas often get the short end of the stick.
And everyone gets the short end of the stick when county hall gets mired in purely local issues. It makes county government more expensive and less progressive. That degrades everyone’s standard of living.
But creating or enlarging cities is tough. How do we make them economically viable – Mr. Moss, Ms. Jordan and others expressed concerns about cherry-picking of economic bases and how to handle less-desirable areas.
How many cities? “We don’t want to have 150 cities because it’s going to be terrible if it happens,” Ms. Sosa said during last year’s discussion on incorporations.
Citizen committees now weighing whether their areas of the county should be cities will all report to their district commissioner, who has final say on whether their aims go further or will die.
Likewise, the far broader study on incorporations approved last week will wind up at the commission, which has final say about whether to bury the whole thing or move forward with some or all of the recommendations.
If the county does move toward municipalities everywhere as charter writers intended and is vital if county hall is to look at big pictures and not potholes, it would mark a watershed – an evolution from fiefdoms looking inward to a city-state with global impact.
To gain full value from the study, commissioners should offer free rein rather than warp it to fit their aims. They will, after all, get ample chance to bury it untouched, a relatively minor waste of tax money but a terrible waste of opportunity.
A proper study can roadmap our maximum potential with better economic and living status for all residents. By a narrow 5-4 vote the county has begun that journey.