Bright Lights, New City? Biscayne Times, July 2016

Bright Lights, New City? Print
Written By Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer
JULY 2016

SIDES LINE UP AS RESIDENTS EYE COSTS, BENEFITS OF INCORPORATION

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Unincorporated Ojus is growing: The 400-unit apartment community Gables Aventura is under construction at NE 202nd Street and Miami Gardens Drive. BT photos by Erik Bojnansky

or 13 years activists from several neighborhoods between Aventura, North Miami Beach, I-95, and the Broward County line have been debating if they should unite and form their own city.Now pro-cityhood activists want to hold a referendum, as early as March 2017, to create the newest city in Miami-Dade County. But before that can happen, the referendum must be endorsed first by the Northeast Miami-Dade Municipal Advisory Committee (MAC), then the county’s Planning Advisory Board, and finally by the Miami-Dade County Commission.

The next Northeast MAC meeting will likely be held in late July at the Highland Oaks Middle School auditorium, says Jorge Fernandez, the county’s office of management and budget coordinator.

As of 2014, according to the U.S. Census, 18,761 people lived within this 3.3-square-mile area that includes Sky Lake, Highland Lakes, Ojus, and various other subdivisions where municipal services are handled by Miami-Dade County. The area includes condominiums, single-family homes, and retail strip malls. Within this area, a 400-unit apartment community called Gables Aventura is being built at NE 202nd Street and Miami Gardens Drive.

Not too far away from this future community, the Florida Department of Transportation wants to build another flyover at Ives Dairy Road and W. Dixie Highway. (See “Overhead and Under Fire,” May 2016.)

The Census Bureau refers to this region as the Ojus CDP (Census Designated Place), after the town that existed there from 1926 to 1936. Most locals, however, limit the “Ojus” moniker to the W. Dixie Highway corridor and reject it as a name for their city. Other floated suggestions include Highland Oaks, West Aventura, and Aventura Oaks.

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David Promoff of Enchanted Lake with Alan Hecht and José Klahr of Highland Lakes handing out T-shirts prior to the June 21 Northeast MAC meeting.

Lenny Feldman, former president of the Sky Lake-Highland Lakes Area Homeowners Association, says it isn’t even clear if his community will incorporate as a city. “It’s a very emotional and critical issue,” says Feldman, a Highland Lakes resident. “People have strong opinions on both sides.”There are plenty of people who want to keep the status quo. The June 21 Northeast MAC meeting was attended by dozens of residents and property owners, and those who spoke against cityhood (many of whom claimed to be speaking on behalf of condo associations) outnumbered those in favor of it.

Gerard Moss, a 94-year-old Sky Lake resident who sits on the Northeast MAC, is on the anti-incorporation side. Moss insists most people are satisfied with the services they’re receiving from the county.

“If you need the police, they come right away,” Moss says. “I don’t think we need another level of government. What do I need another mayor or another city attorney for? It’ll cost another million dollars of overhead.”

Kenneth Friedman, chairman of the Northeast MAC, is a cityhood advocate. He counters that many of his neighbors are dissatisfied with the services and representation they receive at the county, and says that most anti-incorporation critics are “negative thinkers” who see the glass as half empty.

An April report by the consultancy PMG Associates states that the Ojus CDP can run a city with a $9 million operating budget without raising property taxes, fines, or fees. Hypothetical expenditures for this future city will be $8.5 million, with $4.9 million of that amount spent on police, from the Miami-Dade Police Department.

“We can’t, for the first three years, own our own police,” Friedman admits, citing county law for new cities. However, the new city can hire dedicated MDPD patrols, he says.

Alicia Perez Rook, an outspoken critic of incorporation, insists that the budget not only doesn’t include the cost of building a new city hall, it also omits a county exit fee that could reach as high as $1 million.

“Taxes will go higher,” predicts Rook, a Sky Lake resident. “They have to go higher. They have to pay for and maintain a new city.”

The Ojus CDP is just one part of a noncontiguous 208-square-mile territory where 1.1 million people reside. Known as the unincorporated municipal service area, these neighborhoods lie outside Miami-Dade County’s 34 municipalities.

Currently a property tax rate of 1.9283 mills, or $1.93 per $1000 of a property’s assessed value, is charged by the county within unincorporated areas for most city-like services, such as police, code enforcement, and garbage collection. That’s a far lower tax rate than most cities in Miami-Dade County, except for Doral (1.9 mills) and Aventura (1.7 mills).

Yet it’s unclear how much longer such unincorporated property tax rates can be maintained. Richard Friedman (no relation to Kenneth Friedman), a resident of the unincorporated Moors community just outside Miami Lakes, served on the county’s Annexation and Incorporation Review Task Force in 2013. During his tenure, Friedman learned that while the county’s elected officials have been reluctant to raise taxes, Miami-Dade’s infrastructure is crumbling.

“The current tax rates are artificially low as a way of maintaining favor with constituents,” he says.

That budget crunch will grow worse if more areas incorporate. Besides the Northeast MAC, seven other MACs are looking at turning their respective unincorporated regions into cities. Friedman predicts it’ll be the wealthy regions that bolt first. “Their taxation rate, their property values, allow them to charge at a lot lower tax rate than poorer areas,” he says.

If wealthy regions, like Kendall in south Miami-Dade, become cities, the county will have no choice but to slash services or raise property taxes of whatever unincorporated areas remain, Richard Friedman adds.

Whether or not Kendall becomes a city, Eugene Stearns, an attorney involved in the incorporation efforts of Key Biscayne and Aventura in the early 1990s, argues that Ojus CDP residents would be better off forming their own municipality.

Stearns asserts that tax money earmarked for an unincorporated community is pillaged “with great zeal” by county officials for countywide services like the Miami-Dade Transit bus system. Incorporated cities can also do a far better job providing services and addressing local issues than the county’s government can, Stearns insists. “Local governments,” he says, “are more efficient at providing a quality level of service at a lower cost than the county can.”

Former HOA president Lenny Feldman admits he’s leaning toward incorporation as a means of amplifying the community’s voice on matters like the proposed new flyover at Ives Dairy Road or public school construction, but only if there are guarantees that the new city government won’t overtax the residents on wasteful projects or bloated government pensions.

“If we’re able to make sure there’s responsible fiscal management,” Feldman says, “then there could be benefits to cityhood for a community like ours.”

Marc Hurwitz, the current president of the Sky Lake-Highland Lakes HOA, says his group has taken a neutral stance on the issue of cityhood. The group does, however, want a referendum. Proclaims Hurwitz: “The people should be allowed to vote on this as soon as possible.”