Get county out of pothole business and into the big picture
Written by Michael Lewis on May 5, 2015
Miami-Dade is grappling with a half-century-old task. It should end with a big-picture county view that leaves local concerns to city halls.
The road is winding and bumpy, as commissioners at times have balked at yielding sway over vast areas that do not fall within any city limits. Now commissioners are on track, realizing that less attention is paid to major long-term aims when they debate purely local matters.
The county still has two classes of commissioners.
One class is elected in districts with few cities. Those commissioners become de facto mayors, handling jobs that councils and mayors oversee in places like North Miami, Bal Harbour, Sweetwater and Florida City. These commissioners can so bog down in local citizen issues that it’s hard for them to see the needs of the county as a whole or to think long range.
The other class is elected where cities prevail. These commissioners don’t worry about potholes or misplaced signs or faulty stoplights – their cities and villages do that. So they focus on bigger pictures like sewers, water, land use, environment and the myriad concerns of governing a county of 2,662,874 million people.
To put that in perspective, Miami-Dade has more residents than 105 nations, just behind Jamaica but well ahead of Qatar. We have more area than 76 nations, nearly six times the size of Hong Kong. Our gross domestic product exceeds the national products of all but 60 nations – by United Nations rankings, we’re ahead of No. 61 Morocco, 62 Slovakia, 63 Ecuador, 64 Oman and 65 Cuba.
Why would we plan to put small concerns on commission plates? Actually, we never did. The county’s restructure in the 1950s planned that every inch of land would fall under two layers of government: the county for big policy and local governments for strictly local issues.
The county started down that road but never got there. We have 35 municipalities and more were on the way when commissioners first made it harder to form cities by penalizing new ones, then slapped a moratorium on any new city.
Now, Deerfield Beach’s PMG Associates Inc. has a $200,000 contract to evaluate alternative structures and recommend what to do with our unincorporated areas.
But in the meanwhile, county commissioners must decide how to handle nine ongoing efforts by localities to create cities. At least seven of those studies have ticking time limits, and commissioners must extend those deadlines while awaiting results of the PMG study and any resulting commission action.
That study, we believe, must cover a range of dilemmas:
νHow to form cities without leaving out our poorest areas because no city wants to take them in.
νHow to ensure that cities have an adequate tax base.
νWhether richer areas should pay the county for the right to incorporate, as happened when Miami Lakes, Doral and Palmetto Bay became municipalities.
νHow to share the sales tax for new transit with new cities.
νHow cities would be shaped into logical clusters to avoid thinly connected strips patched together to unite demographic or ethnic groups.
νWhether scraps of land left over after allowing all requested incorporations would become a single “leftover city” with no rhyme or reason other than that nobody wanted any of its parts.
As the PMG report is written, we must not abandon citizen efforts to decide how to organize their areas as the county decided how it wants to proceed. So commissioners are grappling with advisory committees that they authorized to pursue local governments.
Two weeks ago the commission allowed an advisory committee that had its genesis in 2003 to report on a city in the Northeast area of the county six months after the PMG study is finished. That committee first reported in 2004, but in 2005 the county commission slapped a moratorium on incorporations and never heard the Northeast report, which then became outdated.
After the commission lifted the moratorium in 2012, the Northeast committee began meeting again, but it must dissolve when it reports again to the county. Commissioners agreed to extend the committee’s life so that it would be available to report and answer questions after the PMG study is done.
That’s just the first of the string of actions required as a result of the PMG study being inserted into municipal advisory committees’ tenures. This week, the commission was to act on six more extensions of committees’ life spans.
On the agenda for life extensions as the commission weighs the PMG report were the Biscayne Gardens Area Municipal Advisory Committee, created in 2003 and due to shut down; The North Central Dade Municipal Advisory Committee created in 2001; two West Kendall committees covering different land areas that were created in 2013; and two South Dade committees created in 2013.
Give commissioners credit for studying how to incorporate all of the county, but be sure that incorporations occur – and soon. Not only is it better that residents most familiar with local issues solve them, but it will focus the county on big issues that get short shrift when commissioners target purely local matters.
It’s no certainty that a big-picture county would have acted on an aging sewer system long before we ran up a $16 billion unmet need that now is an emergency, but we would have had a far better chance,
It’s no certainty, either, that if the commission’s view had been broader the county would have focused on a transportation disaster coming down the tracks at us a decade or two ago rather than suddenly discovering it today.
Nor would we have been certain that the commission would have planned for and controlled massive development and made certain that vital public infrastructure was available before rather than after construction.
In every case, however, focus was lacking and local matters intervened.
As commissioners keep alive municipal advisory committees and await the study they have ordered, they should prepare to choose a big-picture role. There is more than enough big picture to deal with. We need their full attention where they can have the most impact so that they plan before, rather than after, our needs overwhelm us.