IS MIAMI'S CITY GOVERNMENT ALL WASHED UP?
FEBRUARY 14, 1997
Tom Bearden reports on moves to abolish the city government in Miami, Florida.
TOM BEARDEN: Just another gorgeous sunset over downtown Miami. Superficially, nothing's changed. The seductive glamour that much of the world finds in this part of South Florida is still here. To look at these scenes, you'd never suspect that Miami, itself, is in the midst of a huge financial and political crisis and may not survive at all. It began last summer when a federal corruption probe snared the city's finance director in a kickback scheme.
Two weeks later his boss, city manager Cesar Odeo, was indicted for embezzlement and fraud. The city manager is Miami government's most powerful position, and Odeo had been on the job for a long time, seeing the city through riots, hurricanes, and waves of immigrants. Outside the federal courthouse, Odeo's lawyer protested his innocence.
LAWYER: Cesar Odeo has never ever violated the public trust. He has never--
TOM BEARDEN: The city quickly hired a temporary manager, Merrett Stierheim, a respected local figure. He soon found that Miami's books were a mess, $68 million in the hole for this year alone.
MERRETT STIERHEIM, Former City Manager: You know what was amazing; every time you'd open the door, you'd find something else. For example, they took 30 some odd million from a storm water trust fund which came from the county's collection of water and sewer fees that was to build storm water facilities, capital facilities in the city, and they used that to subsidize the garbage. That's how the garbage collection fee was subsidized.
TOM BEARDEN: By early December Gov. Lawton Chiles declared the city to be in a state of financial emergency. He put Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay in charge of the newly created Financial Control Board to guide the city's recovery process. If that wasn't enough, a petition drive to completely abolish the city government suddenly surfaced, and it gathered enough signatures to force a vote later this year. If it passes, the Miami government would be disbanded, and the city's territory would be absorbed by the surrounding Dade County government. The man looking on as the Board of Elections verified the signatures was Gene Stearns, a local lawyer and one of the movement's leaders.
TOM BEARDEN: Why should the city of Miami be abolished?
EUGENE STEARNS, Abolition Leader: I think the more fundamental question is: Why should it continue to exist in its present state? Most people don't realize, but the city of Miami represents a relatively small part of what is now known as Dade County. The larger government in this region is clearly Dade County.
It is the government that provides the airport, the seaport, water and sewer system, the public health system, and all of our major transportation facilities. The city of Miami really once provided those services but gave them up decades ago and now is essentially what's left of the core city without a tax base to allow it to continue to proceed.
TOM BEARDEN: Miami's vast Hispanic community doesn't buy that line of thought. The feelings come out often on Spanish Language Talk Radio, which is an influential force here.
PERSON: (speaking through interpreter) It's the first time in the history of the United States that an ethic group speaking Spanish, or a language different from English, has come to a place, become concentrated there, and converted it into the capital of the Americas.
AGUSTIN ACOSTA, WQBA: We have conducted informal telephone surveys in our audience, and I would say close to 75/80 percent of the calls of people who live inside the city limits opposed the dissolution of the city.
TOM BEARDEN: Michelle Zubizarreta understands the feelings behind the numbers. She's executive vice president of the advertising agency her parents founded after leaving Cuba.
MICHELLE A. ZUBIZARRETA, Zubi Advertising: The Cuban exile community feels a pride, feels an ownership of what Miami has become. They started working, and they started, you know, advancing and progressing, and so did the city of Miami. So if you, you know, if you ask my mom, what was Miami like when you got here? Well, after 57th Avenue, there was nothing. And now you can go to 100 and whatever Avenue. Miami is sort of our second homeland, if you will, because we can't have our first one. And it's just 90 miles away. So I think it's very emotional.
TOM BEARDEN: The abolitionists have tried to build their case with unemotional arguments. They point out the city wouldn't disappear, just the municipal government. They note that the affluent, famous parts of town are being overtaxed to support the huge poor neighborhoods that make Miami one of the poorest cities in the country. They say it's unfair and illogical when people on one side of the street pay higher taxes than people on the other city who live just outside the city limits.
EUGENE STEARNS: As tax rates are higher in the city of Miami than in surrounding areas, investment then moves to the surrounding areas. As investment moves to the surrounding areas, then property values fall. And so that erosion of value then, of course, requires higher tax rates. And the cycle continues, and we continue to see the disparity in the quality of investment in the city of Miami's compared to its surrounding areas.
TOM BEARDEN: The King Mango Parade, a yearly satire, featured a death of Miami theme this year. This is a good place to get a sense of the emotions that also drive the abolitionists.
PERSON LEADING GROUP: (singing) We can dance and we can stomp.
GROUP: (singing) We can dance and we can stomp.
PERSON LEADING GROUP: (singing) We get paid by Workman's Comp.
GROUP: (singing) We get paid by Workman's Comp.
TOM BEARDEN: There's a certain note of gloating in the pranks, and parodies and put-ons. The parade originated in the part of town known as Coconut Grove, and it's no coincidence that the Grove is considered an abolitionist's stronghold. Several years back Grove residents tried and failed to secede from Miami and form a government of their own.
W. TUCKER GIBBS, Coconut Grove Activist: I wouldn't live anywhere in the world. It's--Coconut Grove--
TOM BEARDEN: We toured the more affluent parts of the Grove with Tucker Gibbs, former president of the Coconut Grove Civic Club. Driving along the shady, laid-backed streets, Gibbs described the people who live here and their attitudes.
W. TUCKER GIBBS: You've got, you know, a beautiful day like today. You've got the most incredible kind of plants and trees. And the people are interesting people, a lot of artists in this neighborhood, a lot of young professionals, in addition to the retirees who've lived here for a long time. To me, this neighborhood embodies what Coconut Grove was and what it's all about in terms of that eclectic mix that makes our little community pretty special.
TOM BEARDEN: Why is there such a sense of wanting to be separate?
W. TUCKER GIBBS: Coconut Grove was a separate community. It was a separate city until the city of Miami annexed it and along with several other neighboring communities in the 1920's. There's always been a resentment of that by the people of Coconut Grove.
TOM BEARDEN: Does a sense of separateness also mean a sense of superiority?
W. TUCKER GIBBS: I think in some people it does. I think there's a great deal of feeling in Coconut Grove that is something akin to snobbism about other neighborhoods. Coconut Grove revels in its being so different and unique, and I hate to use the word unique because it's been overused, but it's true about Coconut Grove. We're different. We're different, and we're unique.
TOM BEARDEN: Sylvester Stallone has a house on one of the Grove's posher streets. He hasn't gone on record about the financial crisis. Neither has Madonna, who has a house down the street. Lou Wechsler has. It's easy to see why Wechsler founded the South Grove Homeowners Association. He's spent the last 23 years perfecting his lush garden and his art-filled home, and he wants to live under a government that cares as much about his neighborhood as he does.
LOUIS G. WECHSLER, Homeowners Association: I think the reason that people support this is because they're tired of spending and not getting services, spending for taxes, not getting someone to answer their call when they want police, not having the services provided, and seeing the wastefulness, the wastefulness that's coming forward today that is being published in the paper daily, weekly, another report, another department found out to have money just squandered away, and graft and payoffs.
TOM BEARDEN: You've lived here a long time. Do you have any pride in Miami?
LOUIS G. WECHSLER: I certainly do. That's why I'm here. That's why I'm talking to you. That's why I serve--
TOM BEARDEN: But you want to get rid of it.
LOUIS G. WECHSLER: That's why I serve--I only was talking about the form of government.
TOM BEARDEN: At the core of this controversy is a paradox. The 100-year-old city's most passionate defenders are its most recent arrivals, the Cuban community.
MICHELLE A. ZUBIZARRETA: That's where I can walk into the street and speak English but speak Spanish, and then if I want to, I can speak Spanglish, which is very talked here, and I can see “Seinfeld,” but, you want to know what, I can also see the television in Spanish, and it's just--it's such a hybrid of so many communities, cultures, people. It's a great city.
TOM BEARDEN: Where do you live?
MICHELLE A. ZUBIZARRETA: Coral Gables. (laughing)
TOM BEARDEN: Where's your office?
MICHELLE A. ZUBIZARRETA: Coral Gables.
TOM BEARDEN: Why is that?
MICHELLE A. ZUBIZARRETA: Why did I know he was going to ask that question? (laughing)
TOM BEARDEN: A passionate defender of Miami who doesn't even live there. It's easy to smile at the irony but Tucker Gibbs says neither side has a monopoly on irrational emotions in this battle.
W. TUCKER GIBBS: The city of Miami has dumped on Coconut Grove for years. We've been in many ways the cash cow that powers the city of Miami, and the people in Coconut Grove feel the city of Miami hasn't been responsive. And the question is: Do you radically go out--the mayor's home--that's the mayor's house.
TOM BEARDEN: That's another irony. Mayor Joe Carollo, himself, lives in Coconut Grove. But there's no stronger believer that Miami is worth saving. He blames the abolition movement mostly on wealthy downtown real estate interests that want to reduce their taxes. He thinks the first step in saving the city is to get its financial house in order.
MAYOR JOE CAROLLO, Miami: I can only try to save those that want to save themselves.
TOM BEARDEN: It hasn't been easy. Temporary Manager Stierheim recommended a series of revenue increases and painful budget cuts. And he persuaded city workers, police, firemen, and civil servants, to postpone scheduled raises, but they showed up en masse at a meeting to demand the rest of the city do its part too. That meant a hike in the fees for garbage collection, a sore point to many residents. When city commissioners refused, the state-controlled board rejected their first recovery plans.
SPOKESMAN: We have no choice but to reject the plan.
TOM BEARDEN: Carollo wouldn't back down on the politically sensitive garbage fees, but he has worked hard to squeeze more productivity from sanitation workers. And the city is finally getting serious about collecting delinquent fees. Inspectors are prowling neighborhoods like Alapata, looking for houses that maintain a second apartment off the record.
SPOKESMAN: Should have two garbage bills?
RESIDENT: How come the city don't tell me that? They send me the bill. I'm ready to pay. No problem, but how come I pay, they no told me, and they--
TOM BEARDEN: The strategy may be working. Recent reports say the city and the control board are close to agreement on how to close the $68 million gap without raising garbage fees.
TOM BEARDEN: How tough was it to come up with the additional revenue to cover the deficit?
MAYOR JOE CAROLLO: Extremely tough. You know, when people here manage the dollars, they really can't appreciate the work that we've had to do. We had to come up with finding new revenues or cutting a total 25 percent of our total budget.
SPOKESMAN: If we're going to save $900,000, and not impose--
TOM BEARDEN: But even when this year's budget problems are solved, the city still has to work out a five-year plan by spring. The mayor is also planning to run for re-election this year. Even if he wins, he still has to face the abolition vote. There is no organized campaign so far, and leaders of both sides are keeping to low key arguments. But many, like Prof. Milan Dluhy of Florida International University, think that won't last.
PROF. MILAN J. DLUHY, Florida International University: I don't think people are going to say, is it better to merge the two fire departments, is it better to make Miami's police department just patrolling and not specialize services in homicide and so on. I don't think that's way the campaign will be run. I think the campaign will be run on this is--this is either a pro Miami vote, that is you have a history with Miami, an emotional attachment, kill it, versus, those are — we don't like the people who are in power; let's dissolve it, and we'll reconfigure it as a city. So, no, I don't think--it will be very emotional, and it will be based on ethnicity and race, and income.
TOM BEARDEN: But a nasty campaign may still be avoidable. City officials recently persuaded one of the abolition movement's biggest financial backers to abandon the fight. The abolition movement could wither on the vine if it should have trouble raising money in the months to come. And Miami might still be around to celebrate its 102nd year.