Web Of Cities Covering The County A Wise Urban Landscape
Written by Michael Lewis on May 23, 2013
By Michael Lewis
A step to spur new cities in Miami-Dade is healthy. It could pull decisions closer to home and help county hall tackle major issues.
The road, however, is neither quick nor easy. A system in which some county commissioners also wear unofficial local mayors’ hats has built power bases that won’t easily yield.
For those in control, change is painful. So it’s admirable that Dennis Moss and Juan Zapata seek studies of five potential cities. That could alter power in their county districts.
Perhaps both have vision to see that if they no longer had to be both commissioner and "mayor," they could focus on the pressing issues of their day, making far greater long-range progress.
That, in fact, is how framers of the county charter – equivalent to a constitution – envisioned the role.
When the 1957 charter kicked in, giving what then was Dade County unique control over its destiny, framers thought every resident would soon live in a village, town or city and county hall would control overarching policy, quality of life and utilities like water and sewer, the airport and the seaport.
Even then, when the county had just passed the 500,000-resident mark, Dade County was the state’s largest, and those who crafted the charter saw this would be an urban giant. Today population tops 2.6 million.
They couldn’t have foreseen today’s issues, with billions in infrastructure needs, more than $50 million in a looming budget shortfall and Miami-Dade a key player in a global economy that increasingly affects us.
What they did know is that commissioners to whom they paid $6,000 a year couldn’t, and shouldn’t, deal with every pothole as well as every major policy.
Today, responsibilities of those commissioners have multiplied, work is far more burdensome – and we still pay them $6,000 a year to fill potholes too.
Making the entire county into a municipal web would offer far more than freeing the county from intensely local matters. It would bring local details down to officials with firsthand knowledge and no distant conflicting roles.
Local decisions would also give residents comfort that neighbors would act for them. Someone you bump into at the store is far more approachable than someone at county hall – and county officials should have too much on their plates to walk around town shaking hands.
Of course, incorporations aren’t as easy as just taking away a slice of a county commissioner’s duties.
You’d have to pay new officials to do jobs the county used to handle. Depending on what residents ask a new city for, costs could rise – but they could also fall. It would be up to local voters to manage – that’s democracy.
It’s also true that cities could perform worse than the county – or better. Again, that’s part of controlling your destiny. What they got would be up to residents. Government can only be as good as voters empower it to be.
So while there’s no certainty that cities would cost less or run better than the county – and might be worse on both counts – one fact is indisputable in city instead of county services: they’d be closer to home.
If you like distant government, let Washington solve your problems. If you like it closer, look to Tallahassee. Closer still? Look to County Hall.
But if you want the biggest influence on government, you’ll want your vote to be one of 10,000 instead of one of 1 million or 10 million or 100 million.
You’d certainly be more likely to meet a city mayor on the street and have a word than the county mayor or the governor or President Obama.
In much of the state, the need to add cities is zero. Fourteen of Florida’s 67 counties have fewer than 20,000 people, making each a quarter the size of 75,371-person Kendall – which isn’t even a city.
Nor, in fact, are 59,764-resident Fountainbleau, Tamiami with 55,271 or Country Club with 47,105. Even unincorporated West Kendall, with 36,154, has twice the population of 14 Florida counties.
The last census, in fact, designated 37 populous Miami-Dade areas that aren’t cities.
And it’s not like the present 35 cities, towns and villages would all dwarf new cities. Three have fewer than 1,000 residents: Golden Beach at 919, Medley at 838 and Indian Creek at 86.
Until last year, in fact, Islandia was the smallest, with five residents on its 33 islands, equal before the law to Miami with 408,568. But Islandia no longer is a city: it’s been stripped of cityhood.
For years, the county wouldn’t allow new cities. The newest is Cutler Bay, with 40,286 residents, formed in 2005 before a moratorium as commissioners oversaw both potholes and a county gross domestic product that is larger than 18 of the 50 states’.
Commissioners will seek roadblocks. Last week Lynda Bell asked to make 25% of residents in West Kendall sign petitions to be allowed to even talk about cityhood. Commissioners put 25% on books to keep cities from forming but have overridden it before.
Commissioners Moss and Zapata want to let residents at least talk about their government. The only reason to muzzle the popular will is to retain power.