Doral mayor says he wants to settle mitigation issue with county
By Suzy Valentine
The mayor of the last Miami-Dade municipality contesting mitigation hopes to resolve a dispute here before the Florida Senate intervenes during a session that started this week.
The issue was to receive preliminary attention Wednesday before undergoing closer scrutiny later in the legislative calendar.
Representatives of Doral joined those of Miami Lakes and Palmetto Bay in Tallahassee in January to dispute their post-incorporation payments to the county. Miami Lakes and Palmetto Bay officials withdrew their objections, leaving Doral's complaint on the table for a Senate session that was to begin Tuesday.
Doral Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez said he would try to schedule a meeting with Commissioner Natacha Seijas, who steers the county's infrastructure and land-use committee, this month.
"I want to resolve this amicably," said Mr. Bermudez, an attorney. "But if I can't and it fails at the Senate level, then I am prepared to take the dispute through the courts."
He said Doral, which he said has the largest concentration of commercial enterprises in the state, is paying a disproportionate contribution to the county.
But Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, whose district includes Doral, said Mr. Bermudez entered the contract with his eyes open.
"I said at the time that if they didn't think it was fair, they shouldn't do it," said Mr. Diaz. "Mitigation was negotiable. They knew that if they took it, they had to live with it."
Miami-Dade has created inequalities among the municipalities, said Mr. Bermudez. "The state is just trying to make it fair for everyone," he said. "The incorporations of Pinecrest and Sunny Isles Beach went through in a different era, so there are different rules for different communities."
"Many of the incorporations preceded the existence of the county - such as Miami and Sweetwater," said Mr. Diaz. "But this is a charter county now. Doral officials knew that. The rationale is to stop people cherry-picking the better communities and leaving the county out of pocket."
Consistency for future incorporations could result from the challenge at state level, Mr. Bermudez said.
"I want a blanket policy," he said. "Let's be fair and equitable to all municipalities. A set fee, such as $30 million, would resolve that. It would take some cities two years to clear that debt, others 10 years, but it would be fair and equitable.
"In 2004, we paid 40% of our budget to the county in mitigation."
Since incorporating in June 2003, Doral has made payments to the county of $1.9 million, $7.36 million and $7.88 million - which Mr. Bermudez said have been mixed with general funds and haven't been used for their intended purpose.
"If you look at mitigation money, it should go into a special municipal trust fund," he said. "The money isn't meant to be put in a general account, and it is intended to be used for administrative services such as the cost of requesting a copy of an occupational license list. It is a myth that the funds are used for poor areas."
The Miami-Dade model is less municipality-friendly than its northern neighbor, Mr. Bermudez said. "Under an agreement, all of Broward is to be incorporated by 2010," he said. "Miami-Dade should also be in the business of regional rather than municipal government."
But comparisons are pointless, Mr. Diaz said. "This isn't anywhere else in Florida," he said. "If they really want that, why don't they move to Broward County?"
Miami-Dade budget analyst Odell Ford said Miami Lakes and Palmetto Bay officials hadn't told the county that they'd dropped their challenges.
"Technically, we don't know that," said Mr. Ford, "but we believe that they have backed off, although the City of Doral continues to pursue it at a legislative level. They are still talking to us, but we haven't sat down with them to try to resolve it as such. The bill is still pending at the legislative level."
Until the matter is resolved, a county freeze on incorporations remains in force. Five communities are in the process of investigating municipal status - Biscayne Gardens, Fisher Island, the Goulds, Plant and Redland. The county has 35 municipalities outside the unincorporated municipal-services area.
Commissioners remain disgruntled about the home-rule challenge, Mr. Diaz said. "Once they started getting the state involved, it smacked of bullying."