Let new cities and a big-picture county hall flourish together
Miami-Dade commissioners stepped backward last week when they refused to let a large southern chunk of the county vote whether to form a city.
The obvious misstep was blocking a vote after a six-year bid to create a city had gone through every hoop, cleared 20 local meetings, and won a commission-appointed advisory group’s call for a vote. The community had won the right to decide, yet it was yanked away.
Less obvious is that the decision impedes a full two-tier county government, with localities targeting purely local issues while an overriding county hall deals only with big-picture opportunities. Today, local irritations distract county focus from tough big-picture countywide policies until they grow too painful to ignore.
Today, 43% of the more than 2.7 million county residents don’t live in any of the 34 municipalities – they live in patches called UMSA, the Unincorporated Municipal Services Area.
UMSA meanders here and there and, unlike cities and towns and villages, is served by the county in a one-size-fits-all operation. Its residents don’t have a city hall to talk to and they pay a special tax for county services.
We think government close to home best meets strictly local concerns about sidewalks, dirty streets, potholes and neighborhood zoning, with people on the council who you might actually meet at the grocery store.
On the other hand, we want our metropolitan government – serving an area larger than 76 nations, with more residents than 105 countries – to laser focus on issues like environment, water quality and quantity, transportation, area infrastructure, major community facilities, our airport and seaport and other big-picture opportunities.
We’ve been late to attack major problems – think mobility, which grew to a painful crisis before it got real county focus. A government solely targeting bigger issues might have moved more boldly on not just mobility but affordable housing or infrastructure gaps or a rising sea level before they engulf us.
That’s the concept under which in the 1950s Miami-Dade’s charter won unique powers from the state. Nothing requires that any area become a city – that’s up to its residents. But once all basic steps are taken, as they were in South Dade, residents should at least have the right to vote on whether they want a city.
Instead, commissioners counted noses at county hall last week and decided more of the audience opposed a new city than favored one. So after a straw vote, with eight opposing, Dennis Moss, who had spearheaded having that slice of his district study cityhood, backed off a formal vote.
The other commissioners hadn’t heard any of the 20 district meetings: what counted for them was how many people in county hall opposed a new city.
That’s why on hot issues groups don colorful T-shirts and show up to push for or against something: they know that 25 visible T-shirts impress commissioners more than tens of thousands of voters who aren’t there.
A city could have had 144,000 residents, but they won’t vote on their future. That city would have had more population than Miami Beach, Doral, Aventura or Miami Gardens – larger than any city here but Miami and Hialeah. But it’s to remain for now just neighborhoods with no local control.
True, some cities were carved to exclude poorer areas, leaving them UMSA’s responsibility, while taking economic generators and higher-income areas for themselves. That wasn’t the case here. In fact, the county estimated it would save $10.4 million a year if a new South Dade city took over its own municipal services.
The other big hurdle has been that a lot of commissioners don’t want to give up being de facto local mayor, so from 2005 to 2012 the county barred all efforts to create cities in UMSA areas.
As Mr. Moss told a September 2013 meeting to explain why he had quit opposing incorporations, “when I ran for re-election one of the times, I said what I wanted to do was give the community the opportunity to look at incorporation and to decide, if it gets that far, whether or not they want to form their own municipality.”
The study he initiated six years ago did get that far, far enough to go to the voters – but then the commission last week decided to bar a vote. That’s shameful.
The county charter requires that an area that wants to govern itself and provide basic services be given the right to vote on doing so. Every commissioner knows, as Javier Souto said in debate in 2012, that unincorporated areas “will one day disappear.” But he also said that in incorporations the county commission is “going to decide every single issue.”
And in deciding, commissioners last week kept citizens from voting on their own future and in effect voted to spend too much time being a pothole government and too little looking at the vital issues we face.
We encourage Mr. Moss to try again. Local self-determination and big-picture focus at county hall are too important to just let die.