Its Time To Divorce County Hall From Purely Local Concerns
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade is poised to attain a 55-year goal: focus County Hall broadly and hand local issues to cities.
That would allow enclaves to define their destiny without horse-trading. At the same time, county officials freed of myriad niggling issues could seek big-time gains.
Imagine a county focused on environment, water supply and quality, transportation, economic development and the broad quality-of-life issues that now play second fiddle to multiple minor matters.
The commission is diverted because most residents live in the nation of Umsa, the Unincorporated Municipal Services Area that taxes them while everyone else pays Miami, Coral Gables, Aventura, Palmetto Bay or the other municipalities.
The county commission is the unofficial city council of Umsa. Every commissioner whose district has unincorporated land is that area’s de facto mayor.
Ask voters who they’d like to handle a matter and most would pick neighbors over a downtown bureaucracy.
But up to now Umsa-landers have had no choice: back in 2006 the county banned new cities. It lifted the ban this month, though it’s unclear what alimony the county would set to allow cityhood.
In the past, new cities had to pay every year to replace lost county taxes to aid poorer areas. They paid more than eight years until Miami Lakes sued.
As a condition of divorce, some new cities were forced to use county fire and police, libraries and garbage service.
But areas seek local control to create just such services: residents want more quality, even if they have to pay more tax to get it.
Moreover, most people think neighbors know more about how they want their area to look, feel and function than do 13 county commissioners.
We love self determination. Nationally, very local governments set policies and taxes and are run locally, not by a distant bureaucracy. Even so-so local control seems better than Washington or Tallahassee or County Hall.
That’s human nature: we want to know and talk with decision-makers, not slog through bureaucracy elsewhere.
Now, we have two chances to achieve charter framers’ 1957 vision: a county dotted with cities and villages handling local matters and County Hall deciding issues that affect them all.
First, commissioners this month lifted the ban on new cities. In 2006 our 35 cities encompassed about 46% of our 2.5 million residents, but Biscayne Gardens, Fisher Island, Goulds, Plant and Redland sought incorporation. Commissioners stopped them cold.
Today we have 34 cities — we wiped out six-resident Islandia — but five areas again await cityhood. Commissioners opened the door a crack but have yet to say how or when they could form cities.
Beyond that, we have an even better way to develop two-tier government that will give everyone a city hall to resolve issues that the county now muddles through or avoids.
A charter review team that first met last week could trigger a referendum to form cities everywhere without requiring cash tribute to the county or forced use of county services instead of those that cities can provide.
The last charter review five years ago debated just that, though under time pressure it caved in and suggested that an independent committee plan the change, with a two-tiered government plan to go to voters by 2009.
We’re still waiting.
This time, the charter team should do the deed itself.
Today’s mayor, Carlos Gimenez, serving on that 2007 team, cautioned that we needed an "unbiased" incorporation plan because as things stood, "the only areas that can incorporate are the well-to-do areas, despite the roadblocks we put before them."
He also noted, "The county has done everything in its power to stop incorporation. They’ve put in as many poison pills as possible to stop it. Those areas still left the county, because they wanted self-determination."
A system with cities handling local matters isn’t unknown. All but a tiny speck of Broward County next door is in cities.
Two tiers, of course, do not ensure more honest or better governance. Some Broward cities have been riddled with corruption.
On the other hand, it would be hard to match our County Hall and find a small city that didn’t know it had bought hundreds of hybrid cars six years ago yet had never used a single one.
Size doesn’t determine government honesty and efficiency. But waste is easier and quicker to spot in smaller units.
More important, smaller governments are more likely to do what voters need. That, not cost or honesty, is their allure.
And that division of local needs from area-wide action is what our charter team should zero in on.
Certainly, County Hall has no business continuing to study potholes in Commissioner Fulano’s district or what general to name a two-block street for. Cities can do it just as badly, and for less money.